What are the possible causes? - Veterinary Practice
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What are the possible causes?

DAVID J. COFFEY believes it’s the profession’s confused and confusing social role that’s at fault

FEW of us can have been in practice for very long before hearing from a child that his or her aspiration is to become a veterinary surgeon, or the lament from an adult, with justifications and excuses, why a similar ambition was thwarted.

Why, then, does a profession, the envy of so many, have such a high incidence of suicide among those who have achieved their objective? Could it be that there is an emotional and philosophical chasm between the expectations of life in the profession and the reality?

Our founding fathers, fired with enthusiasm by the Enlightenment, had unashamedly anthropocentric objectives. Domestic animals were considered commodities by society to be used and abused as it thought fit.

This position would have been influenced or granted credence by the biblical statement that humans were given dominion over animals. Social practice has adversely modified the divine directive. Humanity dominates its domestic animals and treats them as slaves. It is largely ignorant of their needs and wants, imposes very few controls and has little compassion.

So long as the nascent profession functioned constrained only by the limiting philosophy of pragmatism, its practitioners were unlikely to be anguished by moral concerns relating to the well-being of the animals to which they ministered.

A crime and a sin

Recruited largely from those with an agricultural or equine background, for them the status of animals was a given. No doubt there were suicides within the profession but any enthusiasm for such an activity would have been restrained by the fact that it was both a crime and a sin.

It would be difficult to overestimate the subtle shift in attitude to animals in society between the first and second centuries of our profession’s existence.

It has been claimed that alcohol and drug abuse is responsible for the high suicide rate in the medical and related professions because of the ready availability of both. This surely begs the question. Presumably there must be factors associated with professional activities that incline those, supposedly with above average intelligence, towards self-abuse.

There will, no doubt, be those who have problems common to all sections of society: mental illness, financial problems, difficult family conditions and unrequited love. The interesting question is whether the veterinary profession has a little more of the problems afflicting the other professions or does it have unique and more momentous difficulties? I incline to the latter.

Anthropocentric perspective

We operate on two diverse and conflicting levels. Those associated with agricultural and laboratory animals have a strictly anthropocentric perspective.

For them, animals remain a commodity, tools of human society that justifies the abuse and torment to which we subject them. They, presumably, justify their indifference to the cruelty involved because they consider our species to have overwhelming prerogative.

Conversely, members ministering to pet animals are required to adopt a totally different attitude. Pet owners, with varying degrees of concern, expect us to consider their animals’ lives sacrosanct. Many demand standards of medical treatment equal to that enjoyed by human beings.

This conflicts with unworthy acts and manipulations that are the very antithesis of concern for animal welfare. Thus, pets are selectively bred, even genetically mangled, to produce conformations that ensure life-long discomfort and disability.

Many are socially isolated and sexually mutilated to ensure that the unfortunate creatures comply with the ludicrous demands of owners who have the need for an animated teddy.

Any veterinary surgeon with the intellectual ability to penetrate the crust of complacency that conceals our profession’s approach to animal welfare will be forced to contemplate the inadequacies of the status quo.

How, then, do new graduates accommodate to these obvious anomalies? Those of us who spent our early years in mixed practice accepted that all animals were equal but some were more equal than others. We simply switched philosophy from farm to the small animal consulting table.

Any farm animal not pulling its economic weight was “sent in” while the ageing, decrepit Pekingese in terminal decline was subjected to expensive, life-prolonging medication. We accepted our subservient role to the fatuous demands of society. Who knows what damage was done to us?

Today, when fewer graduates are selected from traditional backgrounds, I suspect that some find the incongruities inherent in our professional philosophy difficult to accept. Of course, many do accommodate.

Those with agricultural interests – a declining group – have no difficulties. Those in the equine branch seem oblivious to the welfare of the horse. While its practical value for transportation and war have diminished, it remains an adjunct to human playtime, to be discarded when age or injury impose functional inadequacy.

In small animals work, some, indifferent to the fundamentals of animal welfare, seek solace in the technologies of their calling. Thus, we see specialisation burgeoning.

Technocrats, unable to see the welfare wood for the trees that enhance their kudos, plunge headlong into scientific medicine, its associated electronic contraptions and surgical techniques of questionable value.

Several options

The real victims, those who have genuine empathy with animals, who do not see them as living gadgets subservient to human aspirations, have several options.

Some leave the profession; those with incisive minds, as students. Some adjust their horizons and degrade their moral concerns to comply with the profession’s limited expectations. A few, unable to cope, commit suicide.

If we are to reduce the number of disenchanted members who seek solace in drugs, alcohol or death, the inconsistencies, incongruities and contradictions inherent in our profession’s philosophy should be forcibly explained to prospective students.

The problem is that the profession’s politicians appear oblivious to our confusing and confused social role. Rather than analysing its problems in depth, they blunder on proclaiming functions and welfare responsibilities, of which they have little knowledge, to the frustration of many in society who anguish over the treatment of animals and to the detriment of our students and young graduates.

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