The HumaneWatch Interview: Dr. Jeff Ondrak, DVM, MS

Dr. Jeff Ondrak is part of a disappearing breed: the beef cattle veterinarian. Demand is up for livestock docs, but the supply is short and getting shorter by the year.

He’s also one of the more outspoken vets. Dr. Ondrak is a clearly not afraid to speak truth to—or about—power. During a February speech in his native Nebraska, he advised a group of women in agriculture: “If you get a letter from HSUS, please don’t send them money.”

It’s no surprise that someone who depends on animal agriculture for his customer base would have a problem with the Humane Society of the United States. There’s a growing national awareness of HSUS’s affinity with the animal “rights” philosophy, and we’ve come to understand that this includes a desire for farm animals to exit the human food chain.

But veterinarians have sworn to work for (among other things) “the protection of animal health, the relief of animal suffering … [and] the promotion of public health.” So any time a vet is willing to sit with us for an interview, we’re eager to learn what he or she thinks about the animal rights movement and the Humane Society of the United States —and about whether those institutions are working toward the same goals.

You’ve been more frank about the Humane Society of the United States than most veterinarians—even more than most farmers and ranchers. Why are you so outspoken?

In a 2009 address to the National Association of Farm Broadcasting, HSUS CEO Wayne Pacelle described his organization as a “sophisticated political operation.” He was right.

And it appears that less than one percent of his annual budget goes to pet shelters for the direct care of dogs and cats. This is a far cry from the image HSUS portrays in its advertisements. So it appears logical to encourage people to send their donations directly to their local animal shelters, and not to support HSUS.

While I may appear to be more outspoken than other veterinarians on this issue, I am not saying anything I have not heard repeatedly from many of my veterinary colleagues.  I just happened to be the one quoted in a newspaper while saying it.

You recently told a “Nebraska Women in Agriculture” conference: “We [in agriculture] think we’re the good guys, and those people [animal rights activists] aren’t.” You added that the activists believe the same thing, only in reverse. Who’s winning? Is this conflict mostly a product of America’s growing urban/rural divide?

It seems as if American society has moved toward regulating animal agriculture based on concerns about certain production practices. This makes it feel as though animal rights activists are “winning.” I do believe this regulation-friendly climate is partly due to the fact that most Americans lack an agricultural background. It’s estimated that more than half our nation’s population is at least three generations removed from a farm.

Today, 98% of farms and ranches are family owned. Yet animal activists would probably characterize many of those family farms as factory farms, because they have adopted modern technology in an effort to keep their family operations functioning.

People understand that certain foods come from animals, but they don’t appreciate the investment of time and resources farmers and ranchers commit to their animals. I believe most people, if they were actually exposed to modern agricultural practices, would recognize that farmers really are caring stewards of their animals.

A former student of mine was a vegan with no animal agriculture background.  Her comment after visiting our facility was that she was surprised to learn how much effort was put into caring for the livestock—and that we did actually care about the animals.

What kind of an impact do you think HSUS is having on the current generation of future veterinarians? Are you seeing more animal-“rights”-oriented students today than you did ten years ago?

The students I interact with appear to have an increased awareness of animal welfare issues, compared with students in the past. I would not characterize their views as “animal rights.” But they do have a stronger background and a better understanding of the issues related to using animals for food, fiber, research, learning, and companionship. I think this is a good thing for the veterinary profession and the livestock industry.

You’re a beef-cattle specialist, so we’re assuming you know lots of Nebraska livestock producers. We’ve heard talk of a possible “national advisory council” of farmers and ranchers who would work with HSUS. What are your feelings about ranchers who would participate?

Any time farmers and ranchers have the opportunity to work with groups that support the continued production of safe, wholesome food to meet the demands of a rapidly growing human population, they should do so. The words and actions of HSUS, however, suggest they are not interested in assisting in this endeavor.

HSUS clearly supports a vegan agenda that includes the “Three R’s” of humane eating—what HSUS’s website describes as “reducing the consumption of meat and other animal-based foods; refining the diet by avoiding products from the worst production systems (e.g. , switching to cage-free eggs); and replacing meat and other animal-based foods in the diet with plant-based foods.”

It appears livestock producers and HSUS have very different goals.

To make any “advisory council” of ranchers involving HSUS productive, I believe HSUS would have to modify its position regarding what constitutes “humane eating.”

We’re seeing a push from the animal rights movement to ban the use of subtherapeutic antibiotics in livestock. As a veterinarian, what’s your reaction to these kinds of proposals?

One of the five basic freedoms associated with animal well-being is the freedom from pain, injury, or disease. So I find it interesting that people and groups who claim to be interested in the well-being of livestock would support a ban on the use of “subtherapeutic” antibiotics for the prevention of disease.

Remember, such a ban was enacted In Denmark. It resulted in an increased use of antibiotics for the treatment of sick animals. This indicates “subtherapeutic” antibiotics were preventing illnesses that would otherwise have negatively impacted the animals’ well-being.

At the same time there is no evidence the Danish ban has reduced the risk to humans from antibiotic-resistant bacteria. This was the stated objective of the ban in the first place.