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February 2015

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Guest Post: Some Veterinarians Barking Up the Wrong Tree

There are 23 million dogs and cats living in poverty in the United States, and their families often don’t have access to basic wellness services like vaccinations and spaying and neutering.  Low-cost clinics and nonprofit organizations are providing a critical public service for these pets and their families, who most likely would otherwise never get to see a veterinarian.

As Nonprofit Quarterly reports, some veterinarians and other trade groups like dentists are trying to crack down on nonprofits within their respective fields. This fight is playing out in Alabama and other state legislatures around the country, and today I’d like to turn the blog over to my colleague Dr. Michael Blackwell, whose guest column on makes the point that a rising tide lifts all boats in the veterinary profession.  

He is the former dean of the College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Tennessee, deputy director of the FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine, and chief veterinarian of the U.S. Public Health Service. Here’s Dr. Blackwell's take on the issue: 


Imagine trying to shut down a homeless shelter because it gives people a free bed for the night, undercutting business at the Best Western; or claiming that a person who donates free blankets is unfairly stealing away the linen market from Dillard's. Is a soup kitchen driving down sales at Applebee's? What about a doctor who volunteers at a free clinic for the poor—how dare he deprive the HMOs and insurance companies of those customers?

As absurd as it sounds, that's the argument some veterinarians are making in their zeal to shut down nonprofit and low-cost veterinary clinics for struggling pet owners. Unhappy with economic realities, some veterinarians are casting blame on the good-hearted souls within their own profession who work with animal welfare groups to make sure poor and financially strapped families have access to care for their pets.

By blaming nonprofits, veterinarians are barking up the wrong tree. They are seeking even more government regulation of one of the most highly regulated industries. In fact, what the veterinary profession needs is not more government interference, but more tolerance for free-market principles.

Rather than competing with established veterinarians, nonprofit organizations and low-cost services are reaching a new audience of pet owners and introducing them to veterinary services for the first time, expanding the overall universe of veterinary customers and responsible pet owners.

One program providing free spay and neuter and veterinary wellness services for families in poverty-stricken communities nationwide found that 83 percent of patients had never before seen a veterinarian. When these families see a veterinarian for the first time and have a positive experience, they may become lifetime veterinary customers.

A 2011 study by Bayer found six primary reasons for the decline in visits to private veterinary practices:

1. Pet owners are still feeling the impact of the recent recession, even while most veterinarians increased their fees during that period.

2. The number of veterinarians practicing companion animal medicine increased dramatically from 1996 through 2006, far outpacing the growth in cat and dog ownership.

3. Many consumers rely on Internet advice rather than a visit to the veterinarian.

4. The majority of cat owners do not take their cats to the veterinarian because they think it's unnecessary or too difficult.

5. Many pet owners still believe that regular medical check-ups are not needed and many consumers cite "sticker shock," thinking veterinary costs too high.

What wasn't on the list? The existence of nonprofit and low-cost veterinary service providers. These entities are providing a public service, helping to reduce the surplus of unwanted and homeless animals through spay and neuter programs, reducing the number of pets surrendered to shelters and euthanized, and reducing public health threats through rabies vaccinations, parasite control, and other wellness services.

Their work is reducing the burden on municipal agencies and taxpayers. Veterinarians working in non-profit clinics are still veterinarians and are subject to the same licensing, credentialing and oversight standards as any other practicing professional in the field. It's also worth noting that doctors who work with the poor or provide vaccines in developing nations are celebrated, not scorned.

Veterinarians who use their skill, talent and expertise to perform a public service that benefits society should be valued in the same way.

Lawmakers should reject the scare tactics by veterinarians who want to over regulate their own industry and push out veterinarians that are providing good services in the public's interest. It's time to pass legislation formally recognizing that veterinarians should be able to work for nonprofit organizations that help animals, just like they can already work for laboratories, farms, and other enterprises.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Politicians Crying Wolf

With fragmented populations numbering just 5,000 or so wolves in the lower 48 states—and so many of the survivors having lost family members as a consequence of traps and guns—these iconic canids face more threats to their survival than ever.

Last week in Washington, some members of Congress—led by Reps. John Kline, R-Minn., Reid Ribble, R-Wis., and Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyo.—predictably introduced bills to strip wolves of federal protections. The legislators trotted out the same old false claim about wolves being “overpopulated”—a species on the endangered list that occupies less than 5 percent of its historic range.

Wolves face more threats to their survival than ever.

Meanwhile in Lansing, State Sen. Tom Casperson, R-Escanaba, pushed through a non-binding resolution in the Michigan legislature urging Congress to act, falsely claiming that wolves “increasingly endanger people and domestic animals” in Michigan. This from the same legislator who previously had to apologize on the Senate floor for telling a tall tale about wolves stalking children outside a daycare center, which never happened.

It seems these anti-wolf politicians will say and do just about anything to get their way, facts be damned. Of all of the large predators in the world, wolves appear to be among the least dangerous, with no known attacks by a healthy wolf on a person in the lower 48 states. Yet, a small subset of people in the United States still fear and loath these animals, more because of myth than fact or science. A number of lawmakers have rushed to be their mouthpieces.

The federal government delisted wolves in the Great Lakes in 2012, and in just three years of state management more than 1,500 wolves have been killed under irresponsible trophy hunting and commercial trapping programs through cruel and unsporting methods such as steel-jawed leghold traps, baiting, and hounding.

In Wisconsin, 20 percent of the population has been wiped out in just three hunting seasons, including the loss of 17 entire family units. The carnage would have been substantial in Michigan, but for our efforts in the state to suppress the kill in 2013 and to block it entirely last year.

What the states had been doing—in authorizing the killing of large numbers of wolves, mostly at random—was actually worsening the problem, not solving it. A peer-reviewed study from researchers at Washington State University demonstrated that random trophy killing and even killing of depredating wolves may not have the intended population control effect. In fact, it may even spur more wolf breeding.

Why would some politicians lament a failed management tool that never even worked in the first place, and try to legislate a return to this wildlife pogrom that is, at best, a psychological salve for the anti-wolf zealots?

Wolves provide enormous ecological benefits, like keeping deer and elk in balance. They remove sick and weak animals, preventing slow starvation, and limiting deer-auto collisions and deer depredation on crops. By controlling prey herds, wolves act as a sort of barrier to Chronic Wasting Disease and other infections that could cost the states millions of dollars to eradicate and in lost hunting license sales.

Wolves provide other economic benefits, too. Many small businesses now rely on wolf-watching tourism to support their rural communities and local economies. A 2006 study of Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming found that the wolf presence in the Yellowstone ecosystem created a $35.5 million annual revenue stream. In the Great Lakes region, the International Wolf Center, an educational facility in Ely, Minnesota, brings in as much as $3 million annually and creates up to 66 jobs.

These are the types of benefits lawmakers should want for their states and the ones they should encourage and applaud. And while wolves kill some sheep and cattle, these problems can be dealt with selectively in a targeted way, rather than a wholesale slaughter that targets wolves not bothering anyone in the forest.

The HSUS and 21 other conservation and animal protection groups have petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to downlist wolves from endangered to threatened status in the lower 48 states—a proposal that balances federal oversight and protections for wolves with more flexibility to manage wolf conflicts, including the depredation of livestock.

A threatened listing would allow more management without ceding control entirely to state agencies that have consistently demonstrated an overreaching and cruel hand in dealing with wolves. This proposal is a rational, middle-ground approach that balances wolf protection with the practical realities of dealing with the occasional problem wolf, and it provides a reasonable pathway forward on what has been a controversial issue.

Congress and the Obama administration should embrace this compromise solution and reject the extreme efforts of some anti-wolf politicians to eliminate all federal protections for wolves by legislative fiat.

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

All Aboard: Pets on Trains is Just the Ticket

Cassie was moving from New York City to Spring Lake, North Carolina, and she was devastated by the idea of giving up her five-year-old cat, Boots, who had been her beloved companion since he was a kitten. She was traveling to her new home by Amtrak, which still doesn’t allow pets, and Cassie couldn’t afford to fly Boots separately on an airplane.

Matt Wildman/for The HSUS
Cassie and Boots

Fortunately, The Humane Society of the United States arranged a flight for Boots to Raleigh-Durham, and a volunteer rented a car to drive the cat 75 miles to Cassie’s new home. But many families, especially in regions of the country where train travel is the most affordable or most convenient option, are not as lucky.

You can take your dog or cat on an airplane, and stay with your pet in many hotels. But why can’t a companion animal travel with your family on a passenger train?

There’s a move in Congress to change that, and U.S. Reps. Jeff Denham, R-Calif., and Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., are working to get pets on board.

Yesterday they reintroduced the Pets on Trains Act, H.R. 674, which would require Amtrak, the national rail operator, to implement a pet policy to allow passengers to travel with domesticated cats and dogs on certain trains.

They pushed the issue in the last session of Congress, with Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., sponsoring a companion bill. Under the legislation, Amtrak would be required to develop a policy for people to travel with their pets, and to designate, where feasible, at least one car of each passenger train in which a ticketed passenger may transport a dog or cat.

There would be reasonable requirements for pet owners who want to take advantage of this policy, such as keeping the pet in a kennel or carrier, traveling less than 750 miles, and paying a fee that covers the cost of administering the policy.

The bill gives Amtrak the flexibility to develop the details of the policy to best fit the service and their customers. And it could be a profit generator for the train operator, as Americans are spending more every year on their pets and may want to take their best friend along on vacation or business travel.

Last year, in response to the awareness created by the bill, Amtrak launched a pilot program in Illinois to test the idea of allowing pets on passenger trains. As Rep. Denham said, “This legislation builds on the success of that pilot program and would help families nationwide save money and time in traveling with their pets while bringing in much-needed revenue for Amtrak.”

Rep. Denham is the chairman of the House Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials, and Rep. Cohen is a member of that subcommittee, which oversees Amtrak’s operations. Congress should take up and pass this common-sense legislation, which won’t cost the federal government or Amtrak any additional funds, but will help millions of American pet owners and strengthen the human-animal bond.

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