Animal Protection > Activist Interviews

Ned Buyukmihci
Founder,
Association of Veterinarians for Animal Rights
Julian Guthrie, S.F. Gate
August 2003

The goats were uninterested in the pigs. The pigs were busy rooting out morsels from the mud. Occasionally, a swine would stop foraging, drop to the ground, roll over and await a belly rub. Not far away, a steer sat lakeside, stoic as a bovine Buddha, taking it all in.

It was a calm, cool spring morning in Vacaville. The 150-plus creatures chickens, cows, turkeys, dogs, sheep, cattle, goats who are lucky enough to live on the rolling hills and verdant fields of this 60-acre sanctuary were saved from their fiercest predator: man.

Peggy Sue, a Yorkshire pig, had been tossed in the garbage and left for dead by a high school teacher. A student rescued the sickly piglet, who is now a strapping 275 pounds. Eve, a Suffolk sheep, was tied to a pole at a gas station and nearly died from sun exposure. Joe, then a days-old calf, was tossed into a "dead pile" at a stockyard and rescued by a man who heard belabored breathing coming from the pile of corpses. David, a white goat, was liberated from a research lab where his blood was drawn dozens of times a day.

Those dark days are over, thanks to Nedim Buyukmihci, an international leader in animal rights who co-founded the nonprofit Animal Place sanctuary in Vacaville in 1989.

Buyukmihci, a dreamer and a pragmatist, retired this past spring from UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, where he'd been a thorn in the administration's side for more than two decades. His unflinching defense of animals "individuals," as he likes to call them often landed him in the dog house with his colleagues and superiors.

"I joined Davis in 1979 and started ruffling feathers in 1979," said Buyukmihci, who is 55, soft-spoken and has a nest of silver hair and eggshell-blue eyes. "There was no grace period for me."

The rankling began when the young ophthalmology professor published articles in veterinary journals saying that hunting, trapping and fishing are inappropriate sports for veterinarians. Buyukmihci then became the only faculty member at the prestigious veterinary medicine school to challenge a longtime practice of using dogs and cats purchased from local shelters for research and practice surgery.

Beginning in the early 1980s, Buyukmihci began testifying at public hearings that the Sacramento and Yolo County animal shelters should stop selling adoptable animals to UC Davis's vet school. His colleagues shunned and ostracized him.

As the debate escalated and Buyukmihci refused to back down, the administration tried to fire him. He didn't agree with top administrators who said that students would be better vets having done practice surgery on live animals. In defiance of the school's curriculum, Buyukmihci further angered administrators by offering his students the alternative of practicing on cadavers, terminally ill animals or animals that really needed the surgery.

"Taking that position was one of the most harmful situations in terms of my career," Buyukmihci said, walking around the property and calling each animal by name. The animals, hearing their names called, trotted or ambled over. Buyukmihci gave long and vigorous ear scratches and belly rubs.

"My colleagues believed they needed those dogs, and here was a professor who wasn't only challenging that, but was testifying at hearings," he said, rubbing the gums of a blissed-out 500-pound pig named Aloha.

"I believe that shelters are not supposed to be supplying animals for research," Buyukmihci said. "They're supposed to find a home for the animal or, if they can't, kill the animal humanely. These dogs shouldn't be taken from the pound, loaded into a car terrified, no doubt driven miles only to end up in another cage to be used for research before being killed. If they're going to die, don't make them suffer."

Over the years, Buyukmihci's defense of animals has taken him to laboratories that use animals for research and to farms where chickens are routinely debeaked and cattle dehorned and branded without anesthetic.

"Cattle are dehorned by farmers," he said. "They're roped and immobilized. A gouging tool is used to gouge out the horn. It would be like someone coming up with bolt cutters and removing your first finger at the base."

Buyukmihci believes all animals, whether dogs and cats or pigs and cows, deserve kind treatment.

"There are about 10 billion farm animals killed in this country every year, " he said of chickens, cows, sheep, goats, ducks, geese and turkey. "That's more than 285 individuals killed every second of every day."

A vegan for 17 years, Buyukmihci does not wear, eat or use any animal products.

"There's no hope of stopping the raising and killing of animals today or in the foreseeable future," he said. "Even though I don't believe in raising other animals for food, if it's going to be done, at least we can make their lives as good as humanly possible. Right now, their lives are absolutely horrific. And, it would take very little to make their lives better. Their day- to-day living is horrible."

He ticks off a few of the conditions he sees in the farming industry:

    Chickens used for egg production are confined to small cages with as many as eight other chickens. They are unable to lie down. The birds are debeaked with a hot knife. Food is withheld for 14 days, so hens lose their feathers. Males are killed, either by being suffocated in plastic bags or pulverized alive in oversized blenders.

    Dairy cows are kept pregnant for years, so they'll continue to produce milk. They're artificially inseminated, and their calves are taken away hours after birth. Calves headed for the veal market are immobilized in tiny cages so they can't develop muscles a procedure designed to ensure the meat is tender.

    Pigs are kept in metal crates, restricted from turning around. Some pigs never touch the ground. Piglets are taken away shortly after birth so the mother can be artificially inseminated again. Piglets have their tails cut off and teeth clipped without anesthetic. The average pig raised on an American farm is killed at six months of age.

"I'm most concerned with the day-to-day suffering of these individuals," Buyukmihci said.

He has little hope that the farming industry will change on its own. Change would come through smaller but significant steps, he believes.

For example, Buyukmihci encourages people to give up eating meat for two or more days a week.

"If you stick to that, you will be making a huge difference in the number of animals you alone are responsible for destroying in your lifetime."

Buyukmihci, raised in Minneapolis, became interested in animal welfare issues at an early age. His mother set the example, he said, showing great compassion for all creatures.

He received his bachelor's degree from Michigan State University, his veterinary degree from the University of Pennsylvania and a postdoctorate degree in ophthalmic pathology from Yale Medical School.

In 1981, shortly after joining the faculty of UC Davis, he co-founded the Association of Veterinarians for Animal Rights (AVAR), a national organization of veterinarians and veterinary medical students. The organization was created to help veterinarians become animal-rights advocates. AVAR hosts a chat room for students, publishes a newsletter and offers advice to veterinary students who want to opt out of terminal surgery courses that use animals.

AVAR is continuing Buyukmihci's battle against the Sacramento County Animal Shelter. The group is preparing to file suit against the shelter for what it alleges are violations of its agreement with UC Davis.

The shelter, the subject of a story in The Chronicle earlier this year, sells approximately 400 dogs and cats each year to UC Davis. A dozen or so dogs are sent to the medical research wing of Sutter Hospital in Sacramento.

Teri Barnato, national director of AVAR, says that Buyukmihci's early opposition to the agreement came at a time when it was more common for shelters to sell unwanted dogs and cats to teaching hospitals. Today, the Sacramento County shelter is the only shelter in California that sells lives dogs and cats for research.

"The administrators at Davis should have been patting Ned on the back, rather than giving him such a hard time," Barnato said. "They took his class away. He had to sue to keep his job. In the end, he won. They paid his attorneys' fees. He kept his job. I'm sure they were celebrating when he finally left this spring."

Buyukmihci is relishing his time in retirement. The battles were wearisome and demoralizing, but important, he says now.

"I was very much at the forefront. I wish there had been a large group of which I was just a tiny part. But, I was the leader."

Asked what it cost him, he said, "A lot of sleepless nights, aggravation and loss of standing among my colleagues. Even though I had those sleepless nights, I felt good because I believed I was doing the right thing."

Kathy Andres, a veterinarian who graduated from UC Davis' veterinary program and now works at Pets Unlimited in San Francisco, said "Dr. Ned," as he was known, was considered an extremist by some and a hero by others.

"He had this little dog who would follow him around, right at his heels, everywhere he went," said Andres. "You knew the dog was a rescue dog. Ned was all about the animals.

"I was shocked when I got to vet school," Andres continued. "There were people in my class who went hunting on the weekend. Here they were, shooting animals on the weekend and learning to patch 'em up on the weekdays. Even before that, in my interview to get into the school, I remember very clearly being asked about my thoughts on vegetarianism and about using animals in research. You knew, by talking to other students who had gone before, that it didn't pay to say you were a vegetarian or opposed to research. I think they were trying to keep the Dr. Ned-like 'radicals' out. He was one who lived what he preached."

On especially bleak days, Buyukmihci said he found strength in his students.

"The students were just amazing as far as support. I think they knew they could come to me and that I would be consistent and never back down. I would never change my position, regardless of pressure from the administration."

Since Buyukmihci began his crusade, veterinary medicine schools have slowly begun adopting alternatives to required courses that harm animals. A few schools, including Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine, have adopted policies banning the use of any procedures that are harmful to animals.

Starting this fall, a new veterinary teaching school will open in Southern California, offering students a fully accredited program without the use of any live animals. The director of surgery and clinical programs at the Western University's College of Veterinary Medicine in Pomona is a graduate of UC Davis and a member of AVAR. She said the university will rely on prosthetic models and willed cadavers, animals turned over by their owners for training and research purposes.

Over the years, UC Davis has gradually reduced the number of animals used in teaching.

Dr. John Pascoe, the executive associate dean and professor of surgery at the veterinary school, defends the limited use of live animals. At the same time, he said, the school is searching for synthetic anatomical models suitable for academic instruction.

Buyukmihci is trying to focus on the ways he's made life better for his "individuals."

Since retiring from Davis, Buyukmihci has been traveling the country, talking to veterinary medicine schools about alternatives to using live animals for surgery and teaching. At home, he spends a great deal of time talking to the animals. Wherever he walks around the sanctuary, which is quiet except for the barking of dogs and snorting of pigs, animals trail after him in a scene reminiscent of Dr. Doolittle. He knows every animal's story of neglect, abuse or ignorance.

He knows their quiddities, too. He knows the favorite treat of pigs is croissants or doughnuts. He knows where to pet the goats and sheep and how to give gum rubs to the pigs. He knows that Norman the goat has held a grudge against him ever since he removed his horns to protect workers at the sanctuary. He knows to keep a distance from Howie, the 2,000-pound steer. And, he knows what it means when "the divas" scream.

The divas are Valerie, Flower, Susie and Patty. "Have you ever heard the shrill scream of a pig that wants its breakfast?" Buyukmihci asked. "They are very good at getting my attention."