For more than three decades, my job as a scientist has included tracking and recording every stage of the wildlife trade – from the capture of animals through to captive breeding, handling, transport, stockpiling, selling and keeping. Relevant experience and objective scrutiny cannot fail to recognise the raft of problems inherent to that business: it is characteristically brutal, ugly, inhumane, destructive and masked by the façade of a pet shop window or plush website.
In a previous Veterinary Practice article (December 2015), I reported on the endemic harm associated with the pet trade where, for example, mortality rates are 70 percent industry-standard in just six weeks at exotic pet wholesalers. In UK homes, annual premature mortality rates for the 1.1 million reptiles reach 75 percent, and more than 90 percent for the 40 million pet fish – and that excludes potentially 80 to 90 percent mortality during their capture. It is worth reminding ourselves that these animals are legally or illegally swiped from nature or bred under intensive hydroponic-like conditions – all for profit and amusement and definitely not for need. Between 25 percent and 44 percent of the wildlife trade (including for pets) is also illegal, and much of what is often regarded as legal – such as captive breeding – is being increasingly exposed as yet another scam.
It is important to recognise the formal responsibility of a veterinarian as an impartial practitioner and advisor in much the same way as a human physician. A human physician would play no part in advocating the shanghaiing and trafficking of people into the slave trade, and logically a veterinarian should play no part in the wild capture, captive breeding, selling or keeping of exotic animals as pets. Both activities are overwhelmingly harmful, and both completely contradict the roles of the medical and veterinary professional.
I suspect that for almost all veterinarians, and certainly to all but a few convicted or struck-off doctors, non-advocacy of, if not complete detachment from, animal and human abuses not only fully meets the requirement of their professional codes of conduct, but also their personal standards of acceptable ethics. It’s one thing to deal with harm and quite another to cause it.
Guidance issued by the RCVS states: “A conflict of interest could therefore be anything that calls into question (or could be perceived as calling into question) the vet’s ability to provide independent and impartial advice.” Also: “More generally, a conflict of interest may arise (or be perceived) where the vet has multiple interests in something that may affect his or her motivation.” Essentially, where a vet has (to use RCVS terms) “multiple interests” and/or “motivation”, he or she is capable of conflict of interest.
Yet, there are some vets in the UK and elsewhere who support the pet business in general, whether trading puppies or wild animals. Degrees of involvement for these vets vary from those who visit, manage and approve canines in establishments where holding pens are far too small, enrichment is non-existent or hygiene and preventative care is non-compliant, to those who annually commission vast numbers of animals into trade (and subsequently most to their suffering and death). Others are themselves more subtly embedded in the exotics-keeping community and simply do not want their hobby derailed.
Such involvement even includes vets petitioning government to reduce or eliminate welfare provisions to spare animal breeders and keepers the burden of finding extra cage space. Harbouring a significant commercial or emotional investment in the selling and keeping of animals surely lands heavily under conflict of interest? Oddly enough, the RCVS seems to allow some such interventions on the basis of constituting “opinion” – although it remains unclear how vested interest opinion squares with the College’s issued guidance.
Do vets want animal welfare initiatives thwarted and their reputations spoken for by partial players and not the profession itself? One hopes not – vets, as well as their clientele, should expect better. Arguably, with every supportive step towards or within the domestic or exotic pet business, those vets become increasingly separated from the purposes and ethical trajectories of their profession – in disservice to animal welfare, their colleagues and themselves.