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Is ‘conservation’ a dirty word?

While every veterinarian wants to help animals in one way or another, there is a word private practitioners shy away from: conservation

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While every veterinarian wants to help animals in one way or another, there is a word private practitioners shy away from: conservation. With the exception of veterinarians who work specifically in wildlife or zoo medicine, we do not usually consider it our responsibility to dwell on the environmental impact of pets, or on the trials and tribulations of wildlife in general. Even when such impact does bother us, we are reluctant to tread the minefield of talking about wildlife protection, lest an owner question our dedication to their pet and lose trust in us. When we do discuss the subject of keeping cats indoors or dogs leashed in wildlife areas, it is from the standpoint of the pet’s safety and health.

The One Health worldview is slowly making inroads into veterinary medicine. ‘Sustainable practice’ describes the logistics of running a hospital in a way that minimizes its environmental impact. Conservation medicine and wildlife medicine are being taught more widely, and there are more and more opportunities for veterinarians to work in these fields. What’s not discussed nearly enough is environmental stewardship by general practitioners, or ‘trenchers.’ Such stewardship includes client education on how their pets can safely coexist with our ecosystem, and raising a voice for wild animals subjected to cruelty by the government itself (for example, the use of strychnine to cull wolves).

Pets above all?

Audrey Ruple, DVM, MS, PhD, assistant professor of One Health epidemiology at Purdue University, is an optimist. She believes the One Health mindset is inherent to being a veterinarian. “I think all veterinarians are One Health practitioners, trained to see the entire world through a One Health lens, but some veterinarians may not be consciously aware this is their perspective.”

I’m afraid Dr. Ruple is giving us way too much credit. There are scores of caring, accomplished, and fulfilled private practitioners who couldn’t give two hoots about One Health except when their work touches on zoonoses or resistance to antibiotics. Even my generation of veterinarians (10 years out of school) was certainly not trained to see the world through a One Health lens. If anything, we were trained to focus on owned animals while forsaking all others—including ourselves. The living world outside the clinic walls concerned us only insofar as it was a source of diseases, parasites, toxins, or other threats to our patients. Never did we discuss our patients not as patients, but as members of an ecosystem in which they are usually an invasive species. We have internalized these one-sided lessons quite well.

Mindy Cohan, VMD, a practitioner in the United States, proposes an honestly pet-centric worldview when she presents the benefits of letting cats outdoors. “Although cat parents can be creative in initiating indoor games, the mental stimulation experienced outdoors is ideal. Exposure to live prey allows cats to partake in natural hunting activities. Hunting outdoors serves as an outlet for stalking and aggression that might otherwise be directed toward other household pets and family members.” Such a view is even more common in the United Kingdom, where letting cats outdoors seems to be the status quo. U.K.-based veterinarian Pippa Elliott, BVMS, MRCVS, is in favour of letting them outside, since in that country, they are not in danger from predators. This attitude has travelled across the pond to British Columbia, where I practice and meet many U.K. expats. Another feature of British Columbia, this one having more to do with the ‘Wild West’ and ‘back-to-nature’ mentalities, is the prevalence of an off-leash dog culture, which comes as an unpleasant surprise to many responsible dog owners who move here.

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I envy those colleagues of mine who can sustain single-minded devotion to pets. I envy their peace of mind that I used to have, and I will never get back. I once owned a cat whom I let outdoors. (One day she disappeared, either killed by a predator or stolen for her exceptional mousing talents.) In my mind, I did what many of my clients do: made an exception for myself and my pet. How much harm can one animal do? I admit that statistics on how many birds are killed by cats—my own included—were not interesting to me then. They are not interesting to me now. After raising a fledgling robin picked up in a heavy cat-traffic area, and trying to save a baby cottontail mauled by a cat, I am saddened by even one creature maimed or killed for sport by a pet. Once you have decided it is unacceptable to regard wild animals as living toys or workout props for our pets, you will never go back.

Ecological and moral impact

A dog let loose in the wild that runs into a bear will seek safety by returning to its human, unintentionally bringing the pursuing bear with it. This scenario may end up in an unplanned confrontation, and the bear often pays with its life.

It is not only conservation biologists who are sounding the alarm, but veterinarians themselves. Nichole Rosenhagen, DVM, runs the Wildlife Medical Clinic at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine in Urbana. According to her, “Cats have contributed to the extinction of multiple wildlife species.” In the six years she has worked at the clinic, Dr. Rosenhagen has cared for countless wild animals attacked by pets, many of which cannot be saved. Her advice regarding pets is the same as we give our clients and quite simple: keep cats indoors and keep dogs leashed or supervised when there is a chance they may encounter wildlife.

Michael W. Fox, DVM, is a renaissance man among veterinarians: a practitioner, a scholar, an activist, and a cat lover who has successfully converted many feral cats to a pampered indoor lifestyle. He actively participated in trap, neuter, release (TNR) before coming to reject this practice. According to Dr. Fox, TNR is acceptable only when the cats are not ‘re-abandoned,’ but instead are group-housed in enclosed colonies like those of Pro Animale in Europe. “All TNR programs that release cats to roam outside an enclosed area (wherein they should receive proper care) violate the animal health and welfare, environmental and wildlife protection, and public health mandates of bioethics and One Health policy and praxis,” Fox says. And from a prey animal’s perspective, it makes no difference whether the cat who kills it is feral or free-roaming but owned.

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Many people hold a sincere belief their dogs and cats are part of nature. Here in B.C., where large predators live close to human habitat, pets often pay with their lives for their owners’ delusions. Just as often, a dog let loose in the wild and running into a bear will seek safety by returning to its human, unintentionally bringing the pursuing bear with it. Thus, a wild animal who normally avoids humans may end up in an unplanned confrontation, and often pays with its life. The devastating impact of domestic dogs and cats on unique native species in Australia and New Zealand is well-documented, and efforts at public education have brought heartening results. In North America, species most vulnerable to dogs romping through their habitats are amphibians and reptiles in wetlands, shorebirds trying to nest (the latter can be exhausted after a long flight), and ungulates chased to exhaustion even if they are not attacked. Many animals and birds are scared away from their habitat by the mere presence of dogs in the vicinity of hiking trails.

Profession for some, duty for all

Some of our colleagues are specialists in wildlife or conservation medicine, some are certified wildlife rehabilitators. Other trenchers like me are simply bothered by the enormous double standard applied to pets and to wild animals. But according to the revised Canadian Veterinary Oath, new generations of Canadian veterinarians actually have a moral obligation to help wildlife in their struggle to survive our impact on them. I was surprised to see the oath now includes a promise to “protect the health of the public and the environment” (italics are mine). These words were not there when I graduated in 2008; the Veterinarian’s Oath in the United States does not contain them either. Yet, both oaths call on us to prevent and relieve suffering. I believe prevention of suffering must include taking a stand, gently but decisively, for all the wild animals our patients can potentially harm as they go on their merry ways.

Perhaps I am asking my colleagues to add a new headache and a new heartache to the ones already plaguing our profession. Taking stock of the plight of wild animals can indeed be overwhelming; but I believe it also can provide a sense of perspective. Reflecting on what we can do for wild animals takes our mind outside the clinic walls and keeps us from brooding on our frustrations and perceived failures.

Starting a dialogue

There are indeed trenchers who actively protect wildlife. Nicole Baran, B.Sc., DVM, a former classmate, owns Sudbury Regional Cat Hospital in northern Ontario and works with Turtle Pond Wildlife Centre. No one who has met Dr. Baran can doubt her love of and dedication to cats. The entire hospital team is active in endorsing an indoor lifestyle for cats, both for their sake and for wildlife’s. “Education involves a conversation with clients about what’s most important to the health of their animal. It’s also a team effort and our entire team is involved in client education. First we try to understand where clients are coming from to see where we should focus our efforts. We meet them where they stand, and bring them forward by expanding their understanding of what it means to be a great cat servant, err, I mean guardian. We treat clients as though they are an important part of their animal’s health-care team because they are.” Respect breeds respect. When such close attention is given to a client’s concerns, they are far more likely to show interest in the hospital’s wildlife stewardship, and in how their own choices might contribute to it.

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Owners themselves are our strongest allies. The kind of clients we all dream of, and want to attract, are considerate of others, including non-human others. It is owners who often wince as they describe their cats hunting birds, or ask for advice on how to stop their dogs from marauding small mammals. Many owners simply do not realize cats can in fact be kept indoors, or that a dog’s prey drive can be channelled to other activities through training. It is also true other owners are quite proud of their pets’ hunting skills, or simply entertained by their dogs’ ‘wanting to play’ with wildlife. Others agree to pay the price of unbounded freedom for their pets, even if it comes with battle wounds and a hefty veterinary bill, as well as wildlife casualties. We can only do so much; but the first step—and the hardest—is to determine where people stand, and to open a conversation.

Veronica Gventsadze, M.A., PhD, DVM, worked as a conference interpreter and a university professor of the humanities before gathering the courage to turn her love of science and animals into a profession. Upon graduating from Ontario Veterinary College (OPC) in 2008, she settled in British Columbia where she received her battle christening in the trenches of small animal medicine. Besides advocacy for rabbits, Dr. Gventsadze brings public attention to the plight of moose and caribou who continue to be trapped in abandoned telegraph wire in Canada’s Pacific Northwest. She is a regular contributor on wildlife to West Coast Veterinarian magazine. To balance the rigour of daily work, she writes fiction incorporating lessons learned from animals. Gventsadze’s opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Veterinary Practice News Canada and are strictly those of the author. To reach Gventsadze, see her website at veronica-gventsadze.com/non-fiction/.

 

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