Over the past 30 years, society has experienced a marked increase in concern for animal welfare in all areas of animal use. All across Western societies, we have witnessed the establishment of laws to protect laboratory animals and to minimize controllable pain and suffering. Sweden essentially abolished industrialized confinement agriculture in 1988; the European Union has followed suit. Zoos as prisons—state of the art in my youth—have virtually disappeared. In 2004, more than 2,000 pieces of legislation were floated in state legislatures in the United States pertaining to animal welfare. The executive director of the American Quarter Horse Association, the largest equine interest group in the world, informed me in 1998 that the organization's single largest expense was tracking state and local bills pertaining to equine welfare. Each bill was summarized in a page, and the resulting book was as thick as the Manhattan phone book! And companies have grown rich by disavowing cosmetic testing done on animals.
Organized veterinary medicine in Europe has led in moving animal welfare forward. U.S. organized veterinary medicine has been less progressive in this area, despite society's clear signals that it expects veterinarians to lead and trusts them to do so. Laboratory-animal veterinarians working with Animal Care and Use Committees are the heart of U.S. laboratory-animal legislation, and public faith in these veterinarians is strong.
It is time for U.S. veterinary medicine to shoulder the burden of animal welfare in a consistent and systematic way. The status of veterinarians in society is high and creates a natural and ideal situation for veterinary leadership in this area. And surely the least controversial issue of animal welfare arises in the companion-animal area in which—despite large numbers of people seeing animals as members of the family and despite the important role these animals play in people's lives, eloquently attested to in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina—much unnecessary suffering and death still occur. The fact that people love companion animals is no guarantee that these animals receive proper treatment. Veterinary medicine should aggressively address owner ignorance, breed standards that perpetuate genetic disease, euthanasia of healthy animals, and unnecessary surgeries, both for the sake of its animal charges and to ensure that veterinary medicine retains its enviable status in the eyes of the public.
Bernard E. Rollin, PhD, is a bioethicist and professor of philosophy, biomedical sciences, and animal sciences at Colorado State University.