Veterinarian group opposes Question 3

Prefers broader standards on farm animals

FOR THOSE WHO CARE about the humane treatment of animals, Question 3 appears to be a no-brainer. The initiative calls for state requirements to ensure that animals raised for eggs, veal, and pork sold in Massachusetts are housed in a way so they can at least stand up, lie down, turn around, and stretch their limbs.

As only one egg farm in Massachusetts currently houses birds in cages that don’t meet this standard, public debate around this ballot question has largely focused on how much it would increase prices for meat and eggs being shipped into Massachusetts. Few have debated whether or not the initiative would improve the lives of animals.

That’s why it may come as a surprise to many voters who are used to consulting veterinarians on issues of animal health and welfare that the state’s major veterinary organization does not support the initiative.

The Massachusetts Veterinary Medical Association has come out against the measure – not because they disagree that animals should have room enough to stand up, turn around, lie down, or stretch their limbs, but because they say it falls short of creating a broader and more flexible set of farm animal housing and welfare standards the state really needs.

The veterinary association and the Massachusetts Farm Bureau both oppose Question 3. Separately, the two groups and the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University support the establishment of a multidisciplinary Livestock Care and Standards Board. Similar boards have been developed with varying success in other states. The board would be charged with developing standards on a wide range of food animal welfare issues, such as euthanasia and transportation in addition to animal housing.

Dr. Deborah Kochevar, dean of the Tufts University’s Cummings Veterinary School, said the school has not taken an official stance for or against the ballot initiative. Whether or not Question 3 passes, she said she hopes efforts will continue to create the board.

“Especially in Massachusetts, this board will be effective as we have such a long history and public awareness of animal welfare issues,” she said. “A livestock board here would not only look at these contentious issues, but they could be proactive, and be able to advance animal welfare and be leaders on these issues nationally.”

Kochevar said a board that develops standards based on current research is aligned with how the school teaches its students to approach a problem. “In order to make the best decision, you need to first look at all angles to define the problem, ask who are the stakeholders and collaborate with them, and then collect and analyze the relevant data,” she said. “That’s what vets are trained to do and it’s the best way to serve animal welfare.”

Kochevar is quick to note that she does not speak for all veterinarians or even for the school’s faculty.  “If you ask any one of the faculty members what they think about the ballot question, you will get a range of answers. Many in our community support the initiative because they see it as an immediate improvement in animal’s lives,” she said.

The Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animal’s Boston-based veterinarian, Dr. Virginia Sinnott, is one of over 500 veterinarians practicing in Massachusetts who are endorsing the ballot initiative.  “This is a good first step. It’s just so critical that animals are allowed to have all their normal behaviors,” she said.

Sinnott said the issue goes beyond animal welfare. When laying hens are forced to live “in a cage the square footage of an iPad,” the risk of disease increases. Diseases such as salmonella may also impact human health, she said.

Kochevar said passage of the ballot question “would be positive for animals. But looking long term, we need to develop standards that will impact all food animals here in Massachusetts.”  The ballot initiative will mostly impact animals raised in other states.

In the last legislative session, Representative Stephen Kulik, a Democrat from Worthington, sponsored a bill to create a Livestock Care and Standards Board. The proposal was strongly opposed by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the Humane Society of the United States, and other proponents of Question 3, who felt that their voice would be drowned out by other board members more concerned with the viability of the state’s farms rather than the welfare of farm animals.

Kara Holmquist, director of advocacy at MSPCA, said the bill’s proposed board included 13 members, but only two were representatives of animal welfare organizations.

Another deal breaker for Holmquist and other animal welfare organizations at the table was that the proposed board’s purview included the viability of animal farms and related businesses in addition to animal welfare. “Every expense could be used as an argument not to move forward with regulations that would benefit animals,” she said.

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But Kulik said that the goals of farm viability and the welfare of farm animals are inextricably linked. He said the board could help support the state’s expanding locavore movement to support locally produced farm products. “The question is how can we sustain a healthy and growing agricultural economy in Massachusetts that respects the health, safety, and well-being of animals.”

Kochevar said veterinarians are honest brokers on the issue. “We all go into this work to make a difference in the lives of animals and people,” she said. “Our goal is to make a positive impact on animals and on animal owners, including livestock producers, by helping them develop practices that are more effective because they improve the wellbeing of animals.”