Over the past few weeks the veterinary role in animal welfare has been front and center for me. I recently presided over the day long WVMA sponsored, Animal Welfare Seminar, attended by nearly 125 veterinarians, law enforcement and district attorneys. What's your role in Animal Welfare?
My role in animal welfare was framed in large part as a farm kid growing up in west-central Wisconsin. My view of animal welfare was based in animal husbandry from the agrarian point of reference. Early in my career, as a recent veterinary school graduate practicing in Rock County, I was exposed to numerous instances of animal neglect or abuse. For reasons I don't fully understand, I tended to look the other way; maybe even finding excuses for caretakers responsible for neglected animals.
My animal welfare epiphany occurred in 1995; the Rock County Sheriff's Department requested my assistance at an Avon township farmstead. I arrived on scene late afternoon on one of those clear, windy, absolutely frigid winter days. There were approximately 60 head of cattle; mostly beef breeds of varying ages. Nearly half of the cattle were dead; carcasses frozen solid. The other half were emaciated, nary a stem of hay to be found and a half mile trek across an open field through deep snow to the only source of water available - the nearly completely frozen Sugar River. We were fortunate to have Rock Humane Society volunteer's assistance and within a few hours, the surviving animals were watered and had access to plentiful forage. The surviving animals were confiscated and sold over the following few weeks; the caretaker was found to be suffering from mental disease.
As I write these words, the horrific images vividly race through my mind, the empathy overcoming me, just as it did that cold winter afternoon so long ago. This was my wake-up call. No longer would I look the other way, no longer would I make excuses for the caretakers. I became an advocate for neglected and abused animals. How can we as profession not assume this noble role? I owed this to so many of my clients, tirelessly providing the very best of care to animals in the most extreme of winter weather, they didn't make excuses, they just did it. They didn't eat, they didn't drink, they didn't warm themselves, until the animals under their care were watered, were fed, were sheltered.
I was recently recognized by the Rock County Sheriff's Department as a Citizen of the Year for my work with the Rock County Sherriff's Department humane officer, Deputy Bambi Stoikes. I was thrilled Deputy Stoikes attended the recent Animal Welfare Seminar with me. She is the one who should receive the recognition; she's on the animal neglect and cruelty front lines every day. Thank you ,Deputy Stoikes and all those in law enforcement serving these roles, your work is so important.
What's your role? Your role is being informed and educated regarding the process to successfully assist law enforcement and humane organizations in relieving animal abuse and neglect. Your role is to be vigilant, your role is to not make excuses, your role is to not look the other way. Err on the side of the animal. Most importantly, have the courage take action on behalf of the helpless. If not us, who? What's your role?
Over the past several years, the WVMA has become acutely aware of the increasing mental health and substance abuse stresses that our professionals are experiencing. Survey studies by mental health experts have quantified the challenges facing some of our colleagues. Articles in our press have made us aware of this issue. The stresses of veterinary school and practice can combine to create depression, anxiety, and even suicide for some of our colleagues.
In a cooperative effort to provide additional resources for our profession, the WVMA worked with the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP) and Governor Walker’s office to get authorization for the creation of a Professional Assistance Program for Veterinarians and CVTs included in the 2017-19 state biennial budget bill. The program is funded with existing license fees and will be a much-needed resource for Wisconsin veterinary professionals who are struggling with substance abuse and mental health issues. This is a major victory for veterinarians in Wisconsin. The WVMA will be working with DATCP as this program is developed. We extend our thanks to DATCP and the Governor’s Office for their recognition of this need for our profession and the commitment to creating this professional assistance program.