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Veterinary Forum October 2007 (Vol 24, No 10)

Clinical Ethics: Are we consistent in our treatment of all animals?

by Barry Kipperman, DVM, DACVIM

    Editor's Note: This provocative piece raises the issue of whether veterinarians should engage in activities that directly or indirectly can cause pain, suffering and distress or death in animals, specifically, eating meat and hunting. While it is not a logical inconsistency to be a veterinarian and eat meat or hunt, Dr. Kipperman raises the question of whether it is hypocritical for one who chooses to be an animal doctor. Are his arguments correct, and if not, why not? Should a veterinarian who engages in these pursuits feel morally uncomfortable, or is there some point that Dr. Kipperman has missed?

    — Bernard Rollin, PhD, Column Editor

    I recently attended a dinner meeting of approximately 40 of my colleagues. As I arrived, I was greeted warmly by the representative with a cheerful, "Oh, I see our vegetarian has arrived."

    I wondered whether she greeted all attendees this way. I asked, "Am I the only person who requested a vegetarian meal?" She responded exuberantly, "Why, yes, doctor — that's why it was so easy to spot your name tag."

    Although the meeting was enjoyable, I could not help but wonder why I was the only veterinarian who chose not to eat meat that evening.

    Taking the leap from chili with beef to vegetarian

    Growing up in the suburbs of Long Island, N.Y., I must admit that I appreciated no connection between the meat I was eating and the death of healthy animals. I thought London broil just spontaneously showed up in the supermarket like Oreo cookies. In addition, as a kid I felt no deep connection to cows, pigs or chickens. And even if the knowledge that I was eating a chicken or cow did cross my consciousness, I managed to diminish those thoughts for the sake of tradition. I mean, who didn't enjoy eating a Reuben sandwich at the deli or chili with beef while watching the Super Bowl with buddies? One may wonder, at this point, how I got through vet school without a visit to a slaughterhouse. I recall selectively skipping that trip.

    I became a vegetarian about 10 years ago after reading the book Animal Liberation by the ethicist Peter Singer (HarperCollins) in which he describes the horrific existence most animals raised for food suffer. According to Singer, in essence we deprive chickens, cattle and pigs of what is most precious to them — that is their very lives — solely to satisfy our palate when deciding what to eat for lunch or dinner.

    I decided it was inconsistent for me to devote my career and energy to improving the lives of dogs and cats all day and then go home after work and contribute to the death of other animals. My position as the token vegetarian at the dinner meeting prompted me to think about whether our actions as veterinarians reflect our ideals.

    Being on our best behavior at work and at play

    As members of a profession that is seen by the public as animal protectors, caretakers, stewards and physicians, doesn't it seem only logical that our behaviors outside work should be animal-friendly as well? Yet, an overwhelming majority of colleagues I have met during the 20 years that I have been a veterinarian are meat eaters.

    In addition, I have worked with a number of colleagues who hunt or fish as a hobby. While I"ˆwas recently speaking to a friend who is on staff at a veterinary school, he relayed that a prominent specialist who has received numerous awards for excellence in veterinary medicine took potential donors for a new cancer center on a hunting trip.

    If a veterinarian were discovered to be hitting or mistreating dogs during or after work, I'm sure the individual would likely face significant public condemnation and possible punitive action from the local veterinary board. Yet, actively choosing to kill other species in the name of hunting or fishing is accepted, even by our own colleagues.

    Living up to our professional face

    I am a believer in the motto "live and let live" and a strong supporter of civil liberties. Does a pulmonologist have a right to smoke on her lunch break? You bet, although I find the behavior inconsistent and obviously harmful to her. Does a veterinarian have a right to eat meat if he or she pleases? Of course — although I believe that this behavior does subsidize the death of animals.

    In the 21st century, is hunting animals necessary to bring home dinner for the family? Although it may be legal, I find this hobby antiquated. And unlike the pulmonologist who smokes, hunting and fishing harm other living things.

    I would like to believe that veterinarians, as highly educated animal advocates and the professional face of animal protection, can appreciate the inconsistency in their behavior as it relates to the treatment of animals and elicit change toward a more animal-friendly direction.

    Do I live a perfect life without foibles and frailties? Certainly not. Do I expect a dramatic shift in how our general society views meat eating and hunting? I do not. But I do find the fact that veterinarians have not led the way in recognizing and abandoning actions that contribute to the suffering and pain of animals disappointing and inconsistent, if not incompatible, with what each of us has devoted our life's work toward — protecting animals and living the veterinarian's oath of "I . . . solemnly swear to . . . benefit society through . . . the relief of animal suffering."

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