Ohio State graduate gets a valuable lesson in politics

AVMA Washington office expands new veterinarian's career horizons
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It never crossed my mind that antifreeze would lead me to a greater understanding of the political process and possibly down a new career path.

During the month of January, I spent four weeks in the AVMA Governmental Relations Division in Washington, D.C. There, I was introduced to many facets of the political process while assisting the AVMA with its federal legislative agenda.

Although more complex than your seventh-grade history teacher would have you believe, participation in the public-policy making process is open to anyone with the motivation to make a difference.

I graduated from The Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine this past June, was in a small animal rotating internship for six months, and then decided to explore a new realm of the profession. I contacted Dr. Mike Chaddock, GRD director, who invited me to work alongside the assistant division directors.

Much of my guidance came from Dr. Mark Lutschaunig, the assistant director who oversees animal welfare issues. I learned that the GRD acts to support, modify, or defeat legislation in accordance with the agenda set by the AVMA Executive Board.

I took immediate interest in H.R. 1563, known as the Antifreeze Safety Act. This bill aims to have ethylene glycol-based antifreeze contain a bittering agent as to render it unpalatable. Ethylene glycol tastes and smells sweet and is attractive to pets, wildlife, and children. In my six months of practice, I treated three animals for ethylene glycol toxicosis. This legislation was given the highest level of support by the AVMA Executive Board (see JAVMA, Jan. 1, 2004).

The assistant directors research legislation, formulate issue briefs and documents to support the AVMA position, and lobby members of Congress. In addition, they serve as a resource for the congressional offices on animal health, welfare, and small business issues affecting the veterinary profession.

Dr. Lutschaunig was beginning to investigate the Antifreeze Safety Act when I joined the GRD. This provided me with the opportunity to research the topic from the ground up. I discovered that in 2002, more than 600 children under the age of 6 and some 5,000 adults were poisoned as a result of being exposed to antifreeze. Twenty-two died. Moreover, a rare California condor died from ingesting antifreeze spilled in a parking lot. Estimates range from 10,000 to 100,000 antifreeze related deaths per year among pets and wildlife.

Before heading to the Hill, I attempted to answer all pertinent questions that can be asked about the legislation. The bittering agent is safe for car engines, is nontoxic, and a proven deterrent. It is also inexpensive, can readily be incorporated into the manufacturing, and is produced by at least five companies. Similar legislation requiring a bittering agent exists in Oregon, California, and Albuquerque, New Mexico. This information was placed onto simple, comprehendible fact sheets.

Dr. Lutschaunig and I set out to gain co-sponsors to H.R. 1563 and move the bill toward a committee hearing. We visited with the members' legislative assistants responsible for animal welfare issues. We also remained in close communication with the legislative assistant of the bill's sponsor, Rep. Gary Ackerman of New York, gaining further insight.

Together, we visited more than 15 offices. During my final week at the GRD, I went solo. The congressional staff members gave me a few minutes of their time. Not everyone can visit his or her representative or senator, but your voice can, and should, be heard. I learned that members of Congress appreciate hearing from their constituents and value their opinions.

When all was said and done, we had gained 10 co-sponsors in three weeks.

In addition to lobbying for support of the Antifreeze Safety Act, I formulated informational materials concerning chronic wasting disease and attended numerous meetings with the GRD staff, where I was made to feel as an equal.

I sat in on a hearing where Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman testified about the Agriculture Department's response to the case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy in Washington state. I hand-delivered letters to 90 House offices and spent an afternoon in the Capitol with retired Montana senator John Melcher, a veterinarian.

My four weeks with the GRD provided me with innumerable contacts, and I discovered many interesting career alternatives to traditional veterinary practice. The opportunity with the GRD is open to veterinarians; paid externships are available to veterinary students. So if you have an interest in the political system, take the plunge and contact Dr. Mike Chaddock at the AVMA GRD, (800) 321-1473, Ext. 3210, MChaddockatavma [dot] org.

Dr. Dan Teich is now working at the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges as a consultant.