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Solving Problems

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Our winter weather has run the gamut this year. The warm thaw and rain that followed the super cold has created ice everywhere. Great care is needed to navigate our precarious environment safely. Yesterday, our 20 year-old Quarter Horse gelding, Joe, wandered out and found himself stuck in the middle of slick ice. So there he stood, in what seemed to be deep equine contemplation, trying to sort out what to do. Only after a long pause did he creep away with baby steps to better footing.

In veterinary medicine, segments of our profession, can sometimes find themselves in challenging situations. Luckily though, we don’t have to solve the problems alone like Joe did. We have organized ourselves to work collectively for the good of our profession and society. Unintended consequences that arise at the intersections of human endeavor must be resolved in a positive and constructive manner. Organized veterinary medicine, the AVMA and state VMA’s, are our voice in these efforts.

The AVMA meets regularly to discuss important and timely issues. One of those meetings is the Veterinary Leadership Conference (VLC) held every year in early January in Chicago. The VLC includes AVMA governance meetings and CE training focused on leadership and development. The WVMA sends a delegation to this event every year. Our delegation includes our executive director, AVMA delegate and alternate, president-elect, president and two young emerging leaders. As such, this was my second year attending.

Our President-Elect, Dr. Alan Holter and I attended an orientation on the governance of the AVMA with our Emerging Leaders, DeAnna Kosanovich a second-year student at UW School of Veterinary Medicine and Dr. Rheba Zimmerman a 2016 graduate of the University of Wisconsin School of Veterinary Medicine. Both of these young ladies are/were non-traditional veterinary
students. They both had significantly varied life experiences prior to admittance to veterinary school. Their perspectives, passions and willingness to be involved in organized veterinary medicine
are impressive.

Workshops for personal and leadership development and improving one’s communication skills were provided later during the conference. Current issues like telemedicine and student debt were also addressed.

I found meeting with the state veterinary medical association’s delegations from our district (Illinois and Indiana) as well as the official business of the AVMA to be enlightening and gave me a better understanding and awareness of the many different issues
facing our broad profession. And then there were the chance engagements with other attendees between sessions or during meals that were so engaging. My world of rural large animal practice is removed from so many of the issues facing small animal practice.

I am grateful that our profession works collectively through the AVMA and the WVMA to be the voice of veterinary medicine in society. I greatly encourage anyone who has a passion for moving our profession forward to contact the WVMA about details of how to become involved.

As for Joe, I can only hope that he has gained some wisdom from his experience that will prevent him from getting into such a predicament again.

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Presidents Message

The Challenges of Animal Welfare Discussions

Over the past decade I’ve been on the frontline of some interesting animal welfare discussions. I was part of the team that drafted the WVMA’s original five guiding principles for food animal welfare that were adopted in 2008. In December 2013 Mercy for Animals released a video of improper handling of disabled dairy cows from a northeastern Wisconsin dairy farm. In response to that, I made over 20 presentations for the WVMA in 2014 across the Midwest educating producers about humane handling of down and disabled dairy cows. In 2010, the arrival of HSUS at the WVMA’s doorstep inquiring about our support for legislation banning dairy cow tail docking set off a flurry of activity to draft a position on that issue. It was the dairy cow tail docking debate that really opened my eyes to the complexity of engaging in meaningful discussions with farmers and colleagues about animal welfare issues.

At the root of the difficulty engaging in these discussions is the delicacy at which we handle exchanges of our moral consciousness. The Judo-Christian teaching in Genesis that god has given man dominion over all the creatures of the earth establishes a firm ethos for kind care and oversight of animals. In our daily lives the care, management, and treatment of animals fulfills that moral obligation subconsciously. Good animal care becomes one of our core moral bearings.

This dimension of animal welfare dialogue came to light to me as I was engaging in various conversations in the spring of 2010 with dairy farmer clients about tail docking. In private, one on one conversation, I could sense a bit of unease with farmers when we spoke about the tail docking issue. That March, I was asked to give an update on animal welfare concerns for the local Technical College Farm Class awards dinner which gave me a chance to test the idea of the connection between moral consciousness and animal welfare. I knew at least eighty percent of the farmers in the audience that evening. I had enough experience with the audience that they trusted me, and I was considered part of their “tribe”. We had shared experiences and values. I started my presentation with two questions. First: How many here believe they have a moral/ethical responsibility to provide good, kind, humane care to their animals? Everyone’s hand went up. Second question: How many here believe they fulfill that responsibility? Again, everyone raised his or her hand. This clearly demonstrated the connection of animal care practices to core moral beliefs.

Rarely, if ever, do we discuss core religious beliefs. We respect each other’s decisions, realizing that while we might have slight differences, we are all of good moral character. However, when someone, especially those we don’t have much in common with, questions our management or treatment of animals, it is easy to be insulted. It is not a superficial insult either, rather a deep cutting one because it calls into question our moral under-pinning. Animal welfare discussions can easily pierce the shell of our inner moral core, often eliciting a deep visceral emotional response. As this emotional defense response kicks in, logical thought processes evaporate. Effective listening frequently shuts down.

Therefore, great care needs to be taken when engaging in animal welfare discussions not to offend the other in the conversation. It is very helpful to try to find some areas of agreement before getting into the specifics of the topic at hand.

When morality issues are challenged, it is common to seek affirmation and support from our “tribe”. A common response to criticism of animal care is: “we’ve always done it this way”. Citing precedent is not justification for our questioned care or procedures, rather it is the reason the discussion is occurring. By acknowledging that the questioned practice was once considered an acceptable standard practice, one can gain credibility in the “tribe” and we can open the door to more logical conversations. Making this connection is crucial to moving the conversation forward in a constructive way.

Interestingly, three years later, in 2013, when I repeated the fore mentioned question sequence at an Extension sponsored animal well-being meeting, very few people raised their hands in response to the questions, which initially surprised me. After reflecting on the situation, I realized that very few in the audience knew me. I was a stranger. Rarely do we expose our core beliefs to strangers. It is easy to intimidate others when engaging, especially if they are strangers.

Here are some tips when having discussions about animal welfare. First familiarity is critical; try to establish a “tribal” connection. Sharing experiences and values goes a long way to keep communication going. Be very tactful, and recognize the non-verbal signals you receive and send. Be careful not to elicit an emotional response. Encourage the other person to share their experiences, thoughts and perspective. Listen, listen, and listen. Conversations about animal welfare are best done one on one. Opening minds to new ideas one by one will slowly move the animal welfare needle. Those new ideas and perspectives will slowly spread through the “tribe” in other one on one conversation.

As veterinarians, we have much to offer the conversation. The best opportunity to move animal welfare issues forward is to engage and make a difference.

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Past Presidents Messages

The Challenges of Animal Welfare Discussions
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Never Say Never
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Hard Choices for the 2018 AVMA President-Elect Election
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Solving Problems
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Planting Seeds - Growing Tomorrow's Veterinarians
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Show Lamb Tail Docking - An Animal Welfare Issue
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'Tis the Season to Give!
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Coming Soon! Professional Assistance Program for Wisconsin Veterinary Professionals
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Work-life Balance?
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Make an Impact!
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Essential Opportunity, Essential Lessons
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Animal Welfare; What’s Your Role?
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The Need is Great!
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Politics, Politics, Politics!
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Professional Wellness: Break the Dam!
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One Bite at a Time!
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Be Relevant!
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Conference Board LEI
2016 AVMA Economic Summit
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