Food Animal Vets Not Short On Ideas

The author talks about the grit and grime of being a backyard farmer as well as a food animal veterinarian.

Photos courtesy of Dr. Khuly

I had all sorts of ideas planned for this column, but dinner somehow intervened.

Plans changed because of the slew of e-mails I received after my column on future food animal veterinarians. Then there was the clincher: A personal foray into backyard animal agriculture and how one slaughtered “pet” rooster blew up my blog, not to mention my family life.

A young Elvio and Dr. Patty Khuly.

So you know, 11-year-olds don’t take well to the intentional killing of their pets no matter how much adolescent gallinaceous aggression they have to endure to enjoy them. And readers of pet-health blogs (who prefer happy, educational success stories sourced from my daily life at work) are similarly sensitive to the concept of “unnecessary” animal death.

No surprise on either front. Though both camps would have impressed me more with their anti-slaughter arguments had they claimed a vegan lifestyle.

One of the last photos of Elvio.

But first to your mail, which included an eye-opening plethora of interest in my approach to our profession’s food animal practitioner shortage. This support was tempered impressively by some expressions of near-violent disagreement; I’m glad I live nowhere nearby this small contingent lest my mailbox risk fire-bombing.

In case you missed this apparently incendiary column, you can catch up in a flash with this: A dearth of food animal veterinarians plagues us. Issues raised by swine flu and other emerging threats have highlighted potential deficiencies in veterinary medicine’s ability to deliver, particularly with respect to food safety.

In the column, I expressed the opinion that the cultural issues often cited by both veterinary students and might-have-been food animal practitioners are largely to blame for the dearth of food animal vets, not so much the economic factors so often implicated. These include, but are not limited to, quality-of-life issues, effective mentorship and animal welfare concerns.

Yet in my analysis of the cultural issues affecting food animal practice, I inadvertently struck a raw nerve. It seems many food animal practitioners felt I disparaged their profession, lifestyle preferences and career choices. I apologize. It was simply my intent to report on the widespread perception of food animal medicine by those making the decision to pursue it or not.

In doing so, I incurred the wrath of a small contingent whose take on me is best summed up as “pansy-ass, hobby-farming, bleached blonde suburbanite.” But I came away with additional fodder when some food animal veterinarians wrote to add more items to my list of “why veterinary students don’t want to become food animal veterinarians.” Others told me tales of their personal frustrations (and I paraphrase for emphasis) as “lackeys of the industrial animal agriculture machine.”

Digesting these messages, it became clear to me that not only does an addressable cultural divide exist between companion animal and food animal practitioners, but divisions are apparent within the food animal profession itself with respect to many of the issues I raised: the macroeconomic, environmental and welfare concerns, in particular. 

An Unsettled Future

Make no mistake: I have an agenda, which I assume is what my detractors most disliked about the aforementioned column.

Veterinarians like me are on the cusp of a trend that pits average citizens against industrial animal agriculture. We dog-ear Michael Pollan’s “Omnivore’s Dilemma,” raise backyard flocks, milk goats, grow vegetables and do the math on solar panels.

Call us “enviro-welfarists” or call us “bleeding hearts.” Hurl invectives if you must. But then answer me this:

Q. Who do you think applies to vet school these days?

A. More than likely it’s someone with my values.

Yes, this is a vision of a future in which veterinary medicine advocates for the welfare of animals and caters to the desire to achieve more environmentally sound, safer alternatives to the kind of intensive animal agriculture our culture has grown dependent on. And it’s reaching a larger audience than you might imagine.

It’s a movement that has some legs veterinary medicine would be unwise to reject out of hand. Not while the Obama garden flourishes, energy consumption and greenhouse gas guidelines are being proposed, the popularity of college internships in organic farming graces the front page of the Sunday Times and the animal welfare contingent (reasonable and unreasonable alike) grows ever politically able.

Also consider all those new faces flanking Fido the cadaver. And the contingent of food animal veterinarians grown tired of being forced by industry to cave to their hard-driving, animal-undermining, low-balling demands on our profession.

In short, it’s not too drama-queenish to suggest that our profession risks being torn asunder by this emerging cultural divide.
Our small animal, food animal, agriculture industry disagreements must be resolved if we are to maintain our unity as professionals charged with providing appropriate stewardship for all our animal species.

Backyard Farming

Back to the slaughter.

There’s something very basic about growing my own food that makes me feel like I missed my calling, however dilletante-ish you consider my efforts.

Sure, I may be a pansy-ass, hobby-farming, bleached blonde suburbanite, but at least this one knows how to muddy her heels as she kills her rooster.

Patty Khuly, VMD, MBA, is a small-animal practitioner in Miami and a passionate blogger at www.dolittler.com. She earned her veterinary degree in 1995 and her business degree from Wharton in 1997.

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