The HumaneWatch interview: Dr. Ron DeHaven

You’d think that leading a respected group of 80,000 veterinarians would earn Ron DeHaven considerable “street cred” with the animal rights movement. But judging from their behavior, groups like the Humane Society of the United States see Dr. DeHaven and his American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) as just another obstacle in the way of “liberating” animals from their human oppressors.

Do you own or train dogs? Raise livestock? Breed horses? Sell eggs? Worse yet, are you a veterinarian who identifies more with farmers than with PETA? If so, you’re in HSUS’s crosshairs, and Ron DeHaven regularly catches flak on your behalf.

Alert HumaneWatchers will remember that in May, Dr. DeHaven  called out HSUS on YouTube. Here’s a bit of what he said about HSUS CEO Wayne Pacelle:

Mr. Pacelle is ignoring the legitimate concerns, and the perspectives and expertise, of legitimate animal welfare scientists and veterinary experts. And he is misleading the public to further his own organization’s agenda. If Mr. Pacelle truly cared about the welfare of animals, he would not be so quick to criticize and minimize the expertise of veterinarians … A knee-jerk response based solely on emotion, and ignoring all of the relevant science, might not be in the best interest of the animals.

Before taking the post of Executive Vice President at the AVMA, Dr. DeHaven worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, serving as Administrator of the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS). By the time he accepted that role, he had already spent several years as APHIS’s chief administrator of the Animal Welfare Act and the Horse Protection Act. You may remember him as the USDA’s veterinary spokesman during the mad cow disease scare.

Ron DeHaven took some time out from his busy professional life to answer a few questions about his organization, and about what HSUS has against animal doctors.

For the benefit of HumaneWatch readers who aren’t veterinarians, can you briefly summarize what the AVMA is, and what it does? Is it basically a trade group for animal doctors, or does it weigh in on public policy matters that affect animals’ health?

The AVMA is the professional organization for veterinarians—much like the AMA for physicians or the American Bar Association for attorneys. Our mission is to improve animal and human health and advance the veterinary medical profession. We are actively engaged in public policy at both the state and federal levels on behalf of our members – on topics ranging from animal welfare to responsible use of pharmaceuticals, and from homeland security to small business issues.

But government relations is only one part of what we do. We conduct educational sessions at our annual convention, we develop guidance to improve veterinary medical practice, and we facilitate access to the services and products that our members want. Our volunteers and staff are dedicated to making sure veterinarians have the tools they need to be successful in their careers, in their families, and in their communities.

A few years ago the Humane Society of the United States merged with the Association of Veterinarians for Animal Rights, and the “Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association”(HSVMA) was born. Is this an attempt to poach members away from the AVMA and compete with the “establishment” veterinary group?

I can’t speak to their motivations, but the existence of the HSVMA does not affect any of the things the AVMA does to serve and represent veterinarians. Our 80,000 member veterinarians care for domestic and wild animals used for companionship, food, fiber, work, research, and entertainment. The HSVMA is looking at a narrow set of issues from one perspective. We function at a more universal level for the good of everyone who is involved with and benefits from veterinary medicine.

It’s difficult to imagine that veterinarians who have been in small-animal private practice for decades might walk out on the AVMA and latch on to a new group. It’s even a bigger stretch to think that livestock vets would gravitate toward something (anything!) connected with HSUS. So what’s going on? Is HSUS trying to attract the loyalty of younger veterinary students? Are they going after the next generation?

Once again, I can’t speak to the HSUS’s motivations. But I think it would be fair to say that the HSVMA is making a concerted effort to have a presence on veterinary school campuses. At the same time, I’ve talked to many students (including but not limited to Student AVMA leaders. As a whole, they seem skeptical of the HSUS’s motivations. And they’re generally unimpressed by its efforts.

One of the things that might make the HSVMA attractive to younger veterinarians (and students) is its “Rural Area Veterinary Services” volunteer program, which claims to offer more than $1 million in free veterinary services every year. Does the AVMA offer anything like that for underserved communities, or are you planning to?

We certainly see value in broadening the experience of veterinary students beyond traditional areas of practice, and we understand that there’s a need to improve access to basic veterinary care in the U.S.

Although it is too early to commit, we have been evaluating a proposal for the development of a program that would provide low-cost veterinary care to populations in need. It would also give veterinary students the opportunity to get hands-on experience in the field.

In the meantime, the AVMA already provides opportunities for externs and interns in both the public and private sectors, and those opportunities aren’t limited to field work. So if a student is interested in gaining experience in private practice, industry, nonprofits, government, research, zoos/aquariums, or environmental and public health (just to name a few practice areas), I’d encourage them to visit our website or call us for information about these programs.

It makes sense that young veterinarians wouldn’t initially trust HSUS’s fledgling veterinary group, since it hasn’t been active in their field for very long. But what do you see beyond the horizon? Once the HSVMA is 10 or 20 years old, will it be considered the AVMA’s moral equal? How will you compete in a “market” where you’ve never really had a serious competitor before?

Right now, we’re more focused on what our members, including students, want the AVMA to be in 10 to 20 years and how we can best serve them. We’re not all that concerned about what another group might be doing.

The HSVMA has a very specific animal rights focus; the AVMA advocates for the profession across the whole spectrum of issues affecting veterinary medicine. In that sense, we have no competition.

It’s great that the AVMA is working toward providing more veterinary care to financially strapped populations (especially in the current economy). If HSUS were planning that sort of charitable outreach for the first time, it would be releasing ads, erecting celebrity-endorsement billboards, blitzing its e-mail lists, and (of course) using the exposure to raise money. When your effort launches, can we expect to hear all about it from top-tier media outlets? Or does the AVMA work more quietly?

We don’t have the budget HSUS has to promote itself, so the AVMA would be unlikely to toot its own horn as loudly. We have a responsibility to our members to conscientiously spend our budget, approximately 60% of which comes from member dues.

We use that income on projects, services, and benefits that provide veterinarians with a great return on their investment. We’d be more likely to spend money developing, supporting, and enhancing the delivery of much-needed services than to launch high-profile, expensive media campaigns that can easily cost millions of dollars.

We get that you have to be cautious about the words you use when you talk about HSUS. But many veterinarians who “get the joke” about HSUS’s intentions would get a boost of confidence from seeing the AVMA acknowledge that HSUS has declared war on the veterinary profession as we know it. Will you keep sending the message to Wayne Pacelle that veterinarians don’t want activists to lead them around by the nose?

It’s true that Wayne Pacelle has launched some vicious, and in my view, unfounded attacks against the AVMA. We’re not afraid to speak up and correct misinformation or rebut false allegations, but we have no interest in becoming entangled in a so-called “battle” that would waste time, effort, and money but do little to nothing to improve animal health and welfare. Rather than attacking another organization, we’re spending our resources to make the AVMA the premier organization that supports veterinarians and the animals we serve.

Got a comment? Be sure to leave your thoughts below. From August 23 to October 29, 2010 we will be choosing the two best comments each week of 25 words or more, and awarding $100 (each) to the local pet shelters of the commenters’ choice. Click here for more information and the official rules.