Building for the Future by Serving Society
Bonnie V. Beaver, BS, DVM, MS, Dipl. ACVB
Address to the AVMA House of Delegates, July 23, 2004
With few exceptions, I have never been one to dwell much on the past, but instead I get excited about what is coming over the horizon. The trophies I would win at horse shows were rewards for a class well ridden and then became a contribution to a local 4H club. The articles and books I have written sit in a drawer or on a shelf, remembered only on my CV, while I am already busy gathering new information for the next ones. The students I have taught are enjoyed for their current accomplishments as colleagues, rather than remembered for the pranks, which I know that is a relief for some!
Building for the future is not a new concept as the result of my candidacy. It has become important for veterinary medicine and has been evident in the contributions of our last several AVMA presidents. As examples, Jim Nave brought mentorship, continuity of leadership, and improved economics. Jim Brandt started improvement of our public image. Joe Howell is working on streamlining of the Constitution and By-Laws and has institutionalized routine visioning sessions by the Executive Board. And Jack Walther is strengthening our public and professional communication skills. Those were futuristic goals started by my predecessors and ones that I am committed to continue as necessary until completed because I believe they are good for our profession and for the AVMA.
But the question today is what does Bonnie Beaver bring to her presidency that will help AVMA build for the future? As I stated when I announced my candidacy, I have already had several years to work on projects I felt were important for our association, and I feel it is not in the best interest of any organization to have big, short term projects thrown at it just to leave a legacy. Instead I believe in projects that strengthen who we are and build for the future, as we find better ways to serve society.
As you are all aware, technological, demographic, and sociological changes mean our relationship with society is changing. In the past, veterinarians wore white hats because of our perceived value within our communities. We were the healers of sick animals, the respected community leaders, and the beloved village sages. Without apologies, we understood the importance of Bessie the cow, who hadn't calved in 3 years but the rancher just knew that the next one would be a good one, or the tear in the eye as Mr. Jones held the old farm dog as it was being euthanized. We always had a dog treat in our pocket, a sugar lump for the horse, and a stick of candy for the child.
But today, how often do we get Christmas presents or even cards from our clients? Our role can easily become just another service provider instead of being one of the professional who is looked up to. Many other groups want to take away small pieces of our profession. The worst part is that some of us do not seem to care.
AVMA has three areas of importance to address as we look at our relationship with society. The first is excellence. As health care professionals, we are expected to deliver the highest quality of veterinary medicine in the private and public practice arenas. For a small profession, we have a lot of responsibility. We serve two publics--the animals and the people. Those varied responsibilities are even more important today then they were when each of us first entered veterinary medicine. The farm dog has become a four legged family member, and added the word anthropomorphism to our vocabulary. The demands of production agriculture changed fire engine practitioners into herd health consultants, and added a public discussion of appropriate care. Military deployment to places like Afghanistan and Iraq increased food safety issues both for our troops and the nations where they are serving. International terrorism has added the concerns of food security to food safety and bioterrorism to freedom. The ability of our profession to meet the diverse needs of society is as strong as it has ever been. Our challenge is to keep it that way.
AVMA is working on excellence in professional activities on many fronts. First, we ensure that veterinarians entering our profession are the best trained professionals in the world through the Council on Education's accreditation program. Colleagues who join us from outside this program have shown they meet these same high standards via the ECFVG program, rather than just meeting the minimal requirements expected in other programs. There are others who have stated they want to take over the educational evaluation of graduates from non-AVMA accredited colleges. That is only the beginning. They have also stated publically that they want to test all our students before those students enter the clinics, retest all veterinarians every six or seven years, and eventually become the accrediting body for our veterinary colleges. Instead of working for improvement of our profession, their efforts will be dragging it down to minimal competency. It is important that we all work to protect the excellence of our profession.
Continuing education is the second important area of excellence. This allows each of us to remain current as knowledge advances, grow into new challenges that confront society, and protect the public and economic health of our country. At the recent G8 Summit held in Georgia, Dr. Tom McGinn said, "What's unique about veterinarians' role in G8? You've got a veterinarian preparing the bioterrorism agenda, a veterinarian who's governor of Georgia, veterinarians developing the Biowatch technology that's associated with early detection methods, and veterinarians providing for food security, public health, animal health, and emergency management for the state as well as during this event." Most of these are not things we learned as veterinary students. AVMA plays a major role in continuing education through the publication of two excellent journals, a convention that is second to none, an information packed website, and other publications and meetings on special hot topics such as BSE and the Public Policy Symposium. Through the AVMA President's Round Table held twice yearly in Washington, DC, I will continue to provide a forum for bringing veterinarians in various federal positions together for the cross pollination of ideas that ultimately help our country.
In order to effectively serve society with excellence, the profession must promote diversity. This applies to diversity in the expertise we have, which I will address later, and it applies to the racial, ethnic, and gender diversity of our colleagues. How can we fully appreciate the nature of animal relations to the Native Americans, Asians, or Hispanics in our country if we do not seek out the best young people in those cultures? Thirty-two years ago, Dr. Iverson Bell served as Vice President of the AVMA and then spent a great deal of his time working to make our profession more racially diverse. This spring I was invited to participate in the Iverson Bell Symposium to bring greetings from the AVMA, and I took the opportunity to listen to some very unique perspectives shared by colleagues with different visions due to their backgrounds. For many years the profession was one dimensional-white male. More recently it has become two dimensional by adding white females. It is time we take care to make it three dimensional, and not allow it to slip back into a single dimension. In discussing this with President Walther, it became clear to us both that our profession was giving a lot of lip service to diversity without accomplishing anything. Both Dr. Walther and I recognized that we had an opportunity to proactively seek ways to expand ethnic and racial diversity within veterinary medicine. At the June Executive Board meeting a recommendation to see how our profession can achieve this diversity to better serve society was sent to the Membership Services Committee for their input on how this might be accomplished.
Productivity is a fourth area of excellence. The AVMA membership is just over 70,000 veterinarians, with approximately 2,100 new graduates entering our profession each year. By way of comparison, there are 60,000 new physicians each year. Now, consider the allied organizations represented in the House of Delegates, the various specialty colleges, and the dozens of other venues in which veterinarians are engaged. I think it is fair to say that a mere 70,000 of us do an awful lot for society already. As discussed, continuing education has been important for this productivity, but in order to continue making such contributions, productivity has to be appropriately compensated. AVMA has recently invested half a million dollars of our dues to help this happen. This investment is not to make bad practitioners rich. It is to make good veterinarians more productive, to serve their clients and patients better. The NCVEI investment has now been directed toward staff development and toward small animal, equine, and food animal practice. The FASTF project is also directed toward food animal practice. We are currently working to raise the professional pay for our colleagues in the military service and are acutely aware that similar efforts are needed for appropriate compensation in the other uniform services, governmental agencies, and academic positions. At a time when state and federal governments are cutting back on funding, they are asking employees to do more and more with less and less. Colleges of veterinary medicine are no longer state funded programs. They are now state assisted, in many cases getting less than 25% of their budgets from the state. Add to that the reality that the veterinary training offered in 26 states is supporting the needs for the entire nation. Overhead from research grants helps fill some of the academic budget shortfall, but research monies are drying up too. I was fortunate enough to address a National Academies of Science committee that is brainstorming veterinary research ideas earlier this year. In the long term this hopefully will be beneficial. But for now, academic salaries are no longer competitive with private practice, so young people are not attracted into teaching careers. We then hire non-veterinarians at lower salaries to fill the gaps, leaving even fewer role models to attract the next generation of teachers.
The fifth area of excellence to be addressed is quality of life. Our role models over the years showed us that veterinary medicine was a 24/7/365 profession, and the sale of our practice at the end was what funded our retirement. Well those models are out the window. It took our younger colleagues to give us a good jolt of reality, to change our paradigm, and show us how important good mentoring must be. We do not have data on the toll our dedication has taken through divorces, addiction, or burn out. Whatever it is, it is too high. Now add to those, the unique stresses of being a mother and a veterinarian. The Model Mentoring Program Task Force, chaired by Dr. Ron Cott, has recently identified a program for our profession. The blending of cultures and priorities of three different generations will hopefully get easier. Following through with those recommendations and evaluating the outcomes is important to be sure our investment in this area pays off.
The second area of importance in the relationship of veterinary medicine with society is communication. This communication is within our profession, as well as to and from our profession.
As a generally introverted group of people, we often make the assumption that because something is obvious to us as individuals, it is obvious to each of our colleagues and to the public as well. Thus we have not made a concerted effort to educate peers or the public about who we are and what we can do. We have a tendency to poo-poo instead of defend areas we do not work in, and I will say the public practice areas of our profession have suffered the worst. In reality they have long been our best kept secret. As a small profession, we must all speak with one voice to be heard in defense of the animal and human publics we serve. We must be willing to listen to each other so that we become advocates for all segments of our profession. Tearing down or belittling any of our diverse focuses does nothing but weaken us all. Conversely, communicating our many strengths, including those less visible, increases the public's understanding of how inclusive veterinary medicine really is.
Many things are underway to make sure we do a better job with communications. The recently established Task Force on Communications is changed to find ways we can send our messages within the profession and to society. I asked President Walther to join me to start meeting with members of the Washington DC press corps to help them think of AVMA first on issues related to animals and food safety. That isn't happening now. I intend to continue working specifically with the Washington scene to increase our visibility there. This will include meeting with the press during Washington visits, being available to them on rapidly developing issues, and hosting events what attract media attention. The Open House for our new Washington office is one example. Getting the attention of legislators and legislative staffers, as well as the press can also be done with specific animal related events that emphasize the human-animal bond. The Communications Division at AVMA is already undergoing major changes, with more expected as the AVMA becomes a "lean, mean communications machine."
The third area of importance to AVMA is animal welfare. Veterinarians are the ultimate authorities in animal welfare. It is important that we retain this authority in light of challenges by animal rightists and humane organizations, as has been evident in recent newspaper attacks. Peter Singer, president of the Animal Rights International which was one of the sponsors of the New York Times ad, told the AVMA Animal Welfare Committee that when his group goes to a legislative body asking for a new law, one of the first questions he gets is "What does AVMA think about this?" When it becomes clear our positions differ, our position was chosen over his. Mr. Singer made it clear to the Committee that he was determined to remove obstacles in the way of his issues. As the world changes, our need to become more outspoken in this area has increased so that the image of the veterinarian being the one true advocate for the animal is not lost. Animal rightists are pushing their agenda in small increments under the guise of animal welfare and with mistruths, but the public is not aware of the slippery path ahead. Just as happens in many of the other areas we touch, we have accomplished a lot for a little. As an example, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has a $17 million budget with a staff of 200. The Humane Society of the United States has a $70 million budget, 300 staff members, and no animal shelters to support. Other animal rights organizations have a combined income of over $14.5 million. How about the AVMA? As you know, our $24 million budget is divided into many areas. Currently we devote around $200,000 and one FTE to animal welfare activities! Truly, a mouse that roars.
For several years the issues associated with animal welfare have been on our radar screen, but as you know they have become increasingly visible over the last few years. In the Executive Board visioning sessions during this past year, animal welfare moved into the highest concern for issues we face. The Executive Board then reemphasized the importance of AVMA's role in the animal welfare arena, with veterinarians as the experts. Only in this way can we serve our biggest public-the animals.
In order to hold our position as the leader in animal welfare, the AVMA must become more proactive in several areas. First we must recognize that the animal industry and the general public have been asking us to lead in this area. In fact, they expect it. However, in the past we have resisted. It is time to get our heads out of the sand. As an example of what we can do as leaders, I have already proposed to the Executive Board, and they passed, a recommendation to develop a Task Force on the Legal Status of Animals to address the hot topics of animal guardianship and the non-economic status of animals in a collaborative way. Not only will this group address the concerns that affect veterinary medicine, they will look how potential legal positions will affect other animal related industries such as animal control agencies, dog trainers, boarding kennels, pharmaceutical companies, and the pleasure horse owners. It is better to face these issues with a single voice than to fight each other at crucial times.
One of the strengths we have as an organization is the diversity of representation we have for input on various issues. We benefit from geographic and professional opinions that allow us to get expert information. We understand what science has learned about that segment of the animal population, and we know the details of how that industry works. This expertise is also our greatest weakness. It is important for each of us to recognize that we may at times become too close to the industries we serve, losing our objectivity about what is the best welfare and adopting instead that suggested by the industry. Broader position statements and independent reviews will become increasingly important.
We will need to revisit the broadest aspects of animal welfare and then base other positions on this big picture. We have looked at one position statement or resolution at a time, without a more global picture to guide us as to where individual statements fit for our profession or all the animals we serve. Everyone wants to get "our blessing" for their positions from animal rightest to animal industry. Some of those requests may be appropriate, but others are self-serving. In the past, we have not always seen the forest for the trees. We have seen how a position statement on the one relatively small topic of sow gestation housing passed in 2002 generated fierce debate in 2003 and led to an expensive task force to more thoroughly investigate what really is known about the science of the subject. If we limit ourselves to positions on individual subjects without a broader overview, we will find ourselves hitting individual trees by taking conflicting positions that become indefensible. Ultimately we would loose our leadership status as other groups pop up to address specific concerns.
The fourth area of animal welfare we need to address is how our specific animal welfare positions are formulated. We are a science based profession. We should be. But, science takes time to investigate hypotheses, not all studies are scientifically sound, and if research monies are not available, critical pieces of knowledge may not be available at the right time. In part, this is being addressed by the National Academy of Science's Committee on National Needs for Research in Veterinary Science, co-sponsored by the AVMA, American Animal Hospital Association, National Association of Federal Veterinarians, American Association of Veterinary Medical Colleges, and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. This Committee will find areas of need but not funding sources for the studies. In the mean time public perceptions change. When less that 5% of the public has an agricultural background, it should not be a surprise that many people do not connect the milk in the supermarket with the cow standing in a pasture or the movie Babe with their ham sandwich. A few years ago, a PhD electron microscopist joined our veterinary faculty at Texas A&M. He was raised and educated in New York City. During one conversation he mentioned he saw his first cow at the age of 19, and the cow was in the Bronx Zoo. I use this to illustrate the importance of understanding where public perception is when we formulate positions on animal welfare. We may listen to what the public is saying without really hearing what they have said. The complete science will not always be available on every issue, and knowledge changes as science discovers more. Even with the science available, public perception may not be receptive. Think about this relative to one of our current issues. The Horse Slaughter Bill is being promoted by celebrities like Bo Derek because some Americans do not want people eating horse meat. Nothing is said in the bill about eating horse meat, yet this is the argument used to promote its passage. Consideration about the welfare of unwanted horses was only superficially addressed, just as it was with the Wild Horse Act a few years ago.
To retain a high visibility as leaders in animal welfare, the AVMA will need to increase time, resources and efforts in the area. This will mean instituting and phasing in a Division of Animal Welfare within AVMA, staffed by veterinarians who remain current on the global aspects of animal welfare science and issues, and who are respected throughout animal-related industries. I intend to work with the Task Forces on Communications and on State Legislative and Regulatory Initiatives to find ways their recommendations can compliment AVMA's needs in the areas of animal welfare and increasing visibility in Washington.
For 141 years society has looked to veterinarians and the AVMA to protect the animal and public health. Our predecessors have done a great job! Now it is up to us to anticipate and meet the needs of society in the twenty-first century.
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