British veterinarian David Coffey has written a critical statement on the purpose and responsibilities of the veterinary profession that is relevant to understanding the relative inertia of all involved in animal exploitation when it comes to changing the status quo of animal use and abuse. This will be of interest to all involved in advancing the status of animals in society and abolishing animal cruelty and abuse.

David Coffey, B.Vet.Med., M.R.C.V.S., can be reached at the Center for Animal Welfare Studies, 84 Hare Lane, Esher, Surrey, England KT1OQU.

From Dr. M.W.Fox

The Veterinary Profession is "Not Fit for Purpose"

To justify such an apparently preposterous statement one must first establish what purpose the veterinary profession thinks it fulfils and, if that seems in any way inappropriate, then explore what purpose it should, or could, embrace.

The purpose of the veterinary profession, at its foundation over 200 years ago by a group of enthusiasts from the Odiham Agricultural Society, was unashamedly anthropocentric and pragmatic. Fired by the 18th Century explosion of interest in science and technology, it was anticipated that their application would provide considerable benefits for the treatment of horses for the cavalry, for transport and in agriculture. It was also expected that the use of science in the treatment of diseases would increase productivity, and therefore agricultural profit. Any benefits for the welfare of the animals concerned were quite incidental. The social perspective of the time would not have questioned human supremacy or failed to justify the subservience of other animals for our benefit.

Our relationship with other animals depends on contemplating and analysing three important elements, the supreme authority of biology personified as Nature, moral philosophy and Judeo-Christian theology. The material world is ineluctably ruled by the inviolable biological dictate - adapt or die. Each individual, and therefore every species, must, if it is to survive, be equipped to live in reasonable harmony with the environment in which it finds itself, the environment which evolution provided. Further, no animal accepts any responsibility for any other species. Each individual, and therefore every species, exploits its environment to its best advantage. Thus, from the purely biological perspective, human beings can hardly be castigated, one might argue, for their selfish, egocentric behaviour towards other species. The unfortunate consequences of our unique biological attributes contribute to the discussion later.

The supremacy of humanity is stressed by Judaeo-Christian tradition, which records that we are made in the image of God. The world was created, we are invited to believe, for us to experience material existence, previous to our passage into the spiritual dimension for eternity. Other species were provided subservient to our ambitions and expectations. Thus, when our ancestors chose, or were directed along, the path of pastoralism, subjecting compliant species to the humiliation, subjugation, degradation and slavery of domestic status, it was considered to have been sanctioned by divine authority.

For well over a century and a half, following its foundation, the veterinary profession resided comfortably within the social framework and philosophy that stimulated its establishment, its function largely unquestioned. Over recent decades, however, questions have been raised concerning the status of animals and considerable interest has been engendered in aspects of their welfare. Concepts such as rights, sentience and, rather patronizingly, stewardship have challenged traditional attitudes. A small but influential body of opinion has emerged to reassess our treatment of animals and our relationship with them. Concurrently, and paradoxically, animals have increasingly been subjected to conditions and management of such brutal severity that only ignorance of, or indifference to, the sophisticated torment and torture perpetrated against them could endure.

Moral philosophers have contributed academic respectability to the discussion but, perhaps inevitably, they have tended to compound the confusion. Tom Regan has enthusiastically promoted the fallacy of moral rights for animals while Peter Singer explored speciesism attempting to parallel the discussions on racism, feminism and ageism becoming somewhat muddled in the process, finding it impossible to define the limits of sentience. Stephan Clark, in his book 'The Moral Status of Animals' offers a gallimaufry of personal moral opinions and religious beliefs which fail to justify his conclusion that it is a moral imperative to adopt vegetarianism. Roger Scruton, conversely, seeks to elevate our species to a level that denies the normal restrictions of biology. In his book, 'Animal Rights and Wrongs' he states, for example, that self-consciousness is a feature that is not shared by lower animals. He then questions this conjecture but justifies his conclusion with unprovable confidence, simply by claiming that "it is redundant to assume otherwise". In view of the inability of philosophers to define either consciousness or self-consciousness, his certainty seems unjustified, arrogant and misguided.

Where does this leave the veterinary profession?  The answer may be found in the declaration which graduates are required to make on entering the profession for it defines the ambiguity and confusion which has always surrounded its social role. The relevant parts state:-

--I will abide in all due loyalty to the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons and will do all in my power to maintain and promote its interests. 

It continues:-

--my constant endeavour will be to ensure the welfare of animals committed to my care.

Whilst claiming the welfare of animals as the profession's seminal responsibility, the declaration reveals a more disingenuous, egocentric function. It remains, as it has always been, a tool of animal oppression, maximizing profit from the animals that society uses and abuses. It is, as indicated by the declaration, more concerned with its social status and the well-being of its members than the welfare of animals. 

So long as humanity lingered in complacency, sanguine that its use of science and technology would eventually construct Utopia on Earth, the use of animals in pursuit of that purpose remained unquestioned, any torment and maltreatment considered justified in pursuit of the greater glory of our kind. To any perceptive mind it should now be apparent that there is something seriously wrong with our species. Our faith in the use of science and technology, our unique biological attributes, has a grave and deadly flaw. Without prescience, without the ability to predict the consequences of our scientific and technical ingenuity, we are constructing an environment to which we will not be adapted. The inevitable biological conclusion is our extinction.

The plight of our species is dire. Its assessment requires, not more science and technology, with their unpredictable consequences, but a profound understanding of environmental dynamism, the realization of our plight. The veterinary profession, with its discipline grounded in an understanding of animals and the natural world, should, and I believe could, assist in offering assistance in prolonging human existence in harmonious balance with the environment. Sadly, rather than maturing into a responsible social force, promulgating the consequences of ignoring the inescapable demands of biology and a balanced ecology, it has degenerated from the respectable, but na�ve, status to which it was born to become solely an instrument of animal oppression. It has abandoned any pretence of professional status to become a commercial enterprise in which greed and profit are its motivating forces, the welfare of animals a cynical advertizing gimmick to fool society in general, and the punters in particular, into parting with money.

It should be obvious to anyone with a fragment of perception that our species, and, indeed, James Lovelock's concept Gaia, is in very serious trouble. Gaia may survive the disease precipitated by our evolution but it will have been seriously disfigured by our transient presence. The aetiology and progress of the disease now afflicting Gaia, our destructive intervention, would have been impossible without our sickening ability to use and abuse other animals, manipulating them for our selfish, egocentric purpose.

So what is the purpose of the veterinary profession? We must either accept that we are a cynical commercial enterprise, an adjunct to the exploitation of animals, a tool of animal oppression or we must recognize reality that human social evolution has been at the expense of other animal species, that domestication, a euphemism for humiliation, subjugation, degradation and slavery, has enabled humanity to, at best, disfigure Gaia, at worst contribute to our eventual extinction and possibly the destruction of the living world. Our function should surely be the latter. If we are to retain any self-respect, any justification, we must contemplate in depth both the plight of humanity and the abuse it has perpetrated against other species since its pastoral adventure. We must contribute to the gargantuan task of releasing domestic animals from bondage, reverse the rape and destruction of wild animal environments and help to establish an harmonious relationship for our species with the living world. We will, of course, blunder on as usual, a parochial irrelevance, to remain quite unfit for purpose!

          David J. Coffey,B.Vet.Med.,M.R.C.V.S.   -   11th September 2006

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