Say what?

What we communicate about animals says a lot about ourselves
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Words matter, of course. And when the subject is animal welfare, language reflects deep-seated values about animals and their relationship to man.

A cow described as "livestock" or "beef," for instance, may be seen as little more than a food source. And the person who refers to herself as her cat's "guardian" is sending a message that the pet is not just a possession.

Society talks about animals a lot. Are farm animals happier when they have room to lie down, turn around, or spread their wings? Is it inhumane to surgically remove a cat's claws for nontherapeutic reasons? Should Congress ban research involving chimpanzees, our closest genetic relatives?

Whether they realize it or not, veterinarians are part of this conversation, according to Candace C. Croney, PhD, of The Ohio State University. Dr. Croney, an associate professor of animal behavior and bioethics at Ohio's veterinary college, spoke during the Joint International Educational Symposium on Animal Welfare about the power of words in animal welfare dialogue.

A cow described as "livestock" or "beef" may be seen as a food source. The person who refers to herself as her cat's "guardian" is sending a message that the pet is not just a possession. ...Whether they realize it or not, veterinarians are part of this conversation.

"We need to be mindful of our language choices and what they represent, and to ensure that what we're communicating is what we intend to communicate," she advised, because discourse and practice are intertwined.

Dr. Croney pointed out that scholars have described the way the meat industry uses "mastery discourse" when it talks about animal agriculture, which conveys the concept that humans hold power over animals. Animal science textbooks reflect this same conceptual framework under which animals exist primarily for humans to use as they see fit, she said.

"The political nature of that relationship is very clear," Dr. Croney said. "Humans have all the power, and animals are domesticated for our use. We control them; we control all aspects of their being."

Dr. Croney explained that animal rights advocates see the issue of animal agriculture through a moral lens, arguing that animals have a right to be free from suffering, oppression, and cruelty. Moreover, rights advocates make their case by issuing generalized claims about "factory farming" or decrying specific practices such as tail docking, close confinement, and castration without analgesia.

They may also allege that overuse of antimicrobials within animal agriculture puts people at risk, Dr. Croney noted.

Proponents of animal agriculture say humans benefit from animals used for food and fiber, according to Dr. Croney. In their paradigm, human needs and animal interests are often represented as being in conflict but, at times, compatible, and in their eyes, the campaign to endow animals with rights to the detriment of human welfare is the true moral problem.

Dr. Croney sees problems with both approaches. "The trouble with these simplistic and contradictory images is they give the public a polarized view of animal welfare issues," she said.

Veterinarians are in a position to help the public understand these complex topics, and yet, the profession has often struggled to find its voice. Veterinary medicine is almost absent in discourse analysis of animal welfare and issues pertaining to animal agriculture, Dr. Croney said, and when it is involved, it's often portrayed as being an extension of "big agriculture."

An important challenge facing the profession is the lack of consensus within its ranks on what constitutes humane treatment. Dr. Croney pointed out that veterinarians working in animal agriculture will most likely have opinions different from their small animal counterparts on pain management.

These differences may have deep roots. Dr. Croney cited a survey of Cornell University veterinary students regarding their opinions on pain associated with certain procedures. Their responses varied, she said, according to species interest as well as to whether the student was on the food animal or small animal track.

"This is problematic, because it suggests there are different values and belief systems relative to the animals veterinarians serve, including young veterinarians coming through the curriculum," she said.

Veterinarians may not even be aware of the messages they're sending. Dr. Croney reviewed the Web sites of several veterinary teaching hospitals, and what she found was when pets were the subject, "care," "compassion," and "humane" were recurring themes. But when horses and livestock were discussed, the themes were "service" and "health care."

"According to the authors of these Web sites," she said, "we don't need to be compassionate or humane to horses and other farm animals. I wonder to what extent people realize they're actually doing this sort of thing, inadvertently undermining their message about their commitment to animal welfare."

Dr. Croney called animal welfare education an imperative for veterinary students and encouraged veterinary institutions to make it a priority. She also called for an investigation into the practices and procedures veterinary students perceive as being humane.

"If we don't know what our students think in terms of animal welfare, we can't understand or even anticipate how they may be engaging in the debate and what sorts of things they may be saying," Dr. Croney explained. "Welfare education is needed so that students represent veterinary medicine and those working with animals in a way that's responsible and thoughtful."