Are we the guardians of animal welfare? - Veterinary Practice
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Are we the guardians of animal welfare?

DAVID J. COFFEY is unimpressed by the profession’s involvement with exotic animals

IT is with no small degree of scepticism that I note the proposal to construct a secular temple by the Bristol veterinary school, ostensibly to promote the welfare of animals. It is, I understand, to cost some £4 million and will house the school’s career academics studying animal behaviour and animal welfare.

Sadly, I fear this will be a yet further sop to those promoting the myth that our profession has the interests and welfare of animals as its primary concern. The welfare of the other animal species with which we share this planet continues in steep decline.

True, pressure from animal welfare organisations, sadly not our profession, has made veal calf production using the crate system illegal in this country so we send our unwanted bull calves abroad for others to persecute, thus adding to their torment with fear-inducing travel.

Experimental work at the Bristol school has helped to modify the design of battery cages a little tiny bit so that our profession can claim concern and demonstrate compassion whereas the evolutionary baggage of these unfortunate creatures still screams for freedom.

Dishonourable systems

Academic pretenders to the aristocracy of veterinary welfare philosophers meddle and muddle with minor elements of intensive animal management rather than condemn the systems as dishonourable, reprehensible and wretched.

Horses now used for pleasure alone, at least in the western world, are “broken”, the males castrated to facilitate compliance, and forced to undertake tasks for which their physiology and their anatomy are not designed while wrapped in straps and with controlling metal bars.

Pet animals, our so-called companions, are genetically modified by selective breeding to their detriment, frequently kept in conditions quite unsuitable to their make-up and sexually mutilated for our convenience. Rather than the £4 million to be spent on the Bristol edifice, animal welfare would be greatly improved by penetrating contemplation of our relationship with other animal species together with commensurate compassionate action. It could not only produce benefits for them but may help to secure human survival. A radical rethink of the precarious situation facing humanity could culminate in a new, less destructive, less invasive, less anthropocentric social formula.

The veterinary profession was conceived and reared at a time when humanity believed its worth to be elevated far above the animals it dominated. Human purpose and its future seemed secure and sacrosanct. Domestic animals were considered commodities, devoid of intrinsic value, to be used for the benefit of human kind. Our profession was then, as it remains, a tool of animal oppression trapped by the shackles and manacles of its own and human history. It is hardly surprising that career academics have to conform to the limited philosophical horizons that tradition and history imposes.

Such forbearance cannot be conferred upon a new, increasingly pervasive, malignant activity in which our profession has lately become engaged. So-called exotic animals are not perceived as creatures worthy of compassion, demanding our understanding.

The trade in wild animals is known to be among the top three international criminal activities worth many hundreds of millions of pounds annually. Among its many contemptible facets is supplying the pet trade.

Forced restriction

Humanity has blighted the lives of the animals it has domesticated for thousands of years. Is that not enough? Does it really need to indulge its contempt for animals by penning wild creatures in penury?

However well they are kept, whether it be in modern zoological collections or in sordid back street hoards, the environment into which they are crammed can never compensate for the restriction they are forced to endure.

I am well aware of the excuses made for our uncritical indulgence. It is identical to the one which prevents us from condemning intensive agricultural practices: “They are there and need our help.” True, but are we such craven wimps, so timid and feeble that we lack the courage and integrity to champion, with unqualified passion, the animals for which we claim social responsibility?

Our profession should forcibly and unequivocally condemn the keeping of wild animal species in captivity. It should condemn, as a malign canker infecting the very soul of our profession, the establishment of departments of exotic animal medicine and surgery in universities without, at the very least, forceful unambiguous concurrent censure of their need.

Preventing illegal trade

Peter Heathcote, chairman of the Exotic Animal Welfare Trust, believes the veterinary profession should assist in preventing the illegal trade. I would urge Mr Heathcote to expose the profession’s hypocrisy and/or its intellectual blindness and exhort it to co-operate in preventing the legal trade, thereby negating the market for illegality.

Certainly, the profession should support the Partnership for Action Against Wildlife Crime (PAW) but only when it has had the courage to eliminate the crime that it itself is committing by condoning the legal exploitation of wild animals.

Increasing public condemnation of zoos by a thinking minority is countered by supporters who claim that they have an important role in conservation. This is blatant nonsense. As the human population explodes exponentially, the greed and need for land and resources is irreversibly destroying the environments of so many wild creatures.

The promulgated myth of reintroduction is therefore duplicitous. Zoos are money-making enterprises pandering largely to the gawking plebeian mob, the teasing, taunting day-trippers scattered between ice cream vendors and rides and slides in the activity corners. A day out to amuse the kids.

The claim that the activity has educational value is tenuous. Is it really wise to teach our children that confining wild animals in unsuitable cages and paddocks for our amusement is acceptable if animal welfare is our aim?

The sickness that pervades our profession concerning the welfare of animals is indivisible from its history and social function. The attachment of exotic animal exploitation to its professional repertoire is a crime of which we should be ashamed.

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