The HumaneWatch Interview: Jake Geis

The Humane Society of the United States has put many Americans in uncomfortable positions during the current decade, but few have found themselves in a box quite like veterinarians.

Just last week the American Veterinary Medical Association (whose chief executive we interviewed back in September) made significant changes to The Veterinarian's Oath, which had only been amended once since its creation in 1969. It now refers to "animal health and welfare," along with "the prevention and relief of animal suffering." (New words are in italics.) The first reaction of many observers was that the move was taken in reaction to HSUS—and specifically to its threat to capture the hearts and minds of young vets, and of vets-to-be.

Many vets—especially the youngest ones who are most comfortable questioning authority—recognize that they’re caught between the proverbial “rock” and the corresponding “hard place.” On one hand, many of them are visibly uncomfortable with seeing the animal rights movement gather steam. But on the other, they recognize the need to maintain the dignity of the veterinary profession by refusing to return fire when HSUS slings mud. In short, playing dirty is supposed to be beneath them. And for good reason.

With everything going on in the veterinary world, it's fitting that we're talking with Jake Geis. He’s a second-year veterinary student at Iowa State University. (That school’s cooperative agreement with the University of Nebraska has put him in Lincoln for the first half of his training.) Geis first pinged our radar screen on November 19 when The Daily Nebraskan published his passionate essay titled “National Humane Society has Backward Priorities.”

Shortly after the November 21 “Town Hall” meeting hosted by HSUS CEO Wayne Pacelle, we caught up with this articulate young vet-to-be and asked him what he thought about all the hoopla.

During Wayne Pacelle's “town hall” meeting in Lincoln, you were one of the lucky few who got to ask a question. Since you're in veterinary school, no one was surprised when you wanted to know why HSUS disagreed with the American Veterinary Medical Association so much. What was his response, and what did that response tell you about Pacelle and his organization?

Wayne Pacelle’s response was long-winded and confusing, just like his answer to all of the audience’s questions. One thing did stick out though: He said veterinarians who write the guidelines for animal welfare work for industry, and are “in the pockets of” industries. I find this personally insulting.

Pacelle basically declared that because we work with farmers and ranchers, we veterinarians are mindless profit-mongers. According to his definition, the lovable English veterinarian James Herriot would be “in the pocket of industry” too. (Herriott, the famed author of All Creatures Great and Small, routinely worked with both pets and livestock.)

It wasn’t surprising, though. It seems typical of HSUS to characterize everyone who disagrees with them as profit-oriented monsters. From the American Veterinary Medical Association to the American Quarter Horse Association to the National Pork Producers Council, according to HSUS anyone who actually lives around livestock is biased and evil.

It would be comical to make of list of organizations that HSUS bashes and then look at who their members are. You’d see a lot of small family farms and mixed animal veterinarians.

You’re in the middle of veterinary school right now. What do your classmates tend to think about the Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association? Will your generation of vets pay them any serious attention as professionals, or do you think everyone has already seen through the animal-rights façade?

Most of us don’t even know what the Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association is. They do not come to our campus, they do not interact with us, and they make up no serious component of the veterinary profession.

In the Heartland, we’ve pretty much called their bluff: There are no student chapters of the HSVMA at any of the Great Plains veterinary colleges, to my knowledge, with the exception of Colorado State University. I’m concerned, though, that colleges in urban areas will give this bogus organization more credit than it deserves.

I think it’s important for veterinary students in the Great Plains states to communicate with their peers that the sole purpose of the HSVMA is to discredit the AVMA. Its success would have disastrous consequences for the profession, even beyond the animal welfare debate.

Watching the leaders of your future profession, do you sometimes wish they would confront groups like HSUS and PETA more directly? Or do you fall in with those who want to see veterinary medicine take the high road and avoid letting animal rights activists lay claim to any credibility?

I’d love it if we could take the high road and just dismiss HSUS as the crazies they are, like PETA. But unfortunately they’ve drawn us into battle and now we have to take a stand. HSUS has even lambasted the American Veterinary Medical Association in full page newspaper ads!

Considering that HSUS is much more well-known than the AVMA, we need to take a very public stand to re-establish our superior credibility instead of letting HSUS define us. Veterinarians are the animal welfare experts, and AVMA is the veterinary profession.

The public needs to know this so they can seek out the opinions of those whose lives are dedicated to animal welfare, and not activists who profit from sensationalism.

Surely you’ve seen HSUS marching from state to state, trying to force ever-tighter livestock standards on farmers. Some observers have suggested that wherever HSUS succeeds, the need for qualified veterinarians will actually increase, since someone has to certify that the new animal welfare standards do what they claim to do. Others predict that vets will be cut out of the loop, and that government bureaucrats (or even local animal protection groups) will mostly take on the load of inspections and evaluations. Have you thought about this? Where do you think it’s all headed?

My classmates and I have discussed this issue: Would it be profitable for a veterinarian to visit farms or ranches for extra inspections? The USDA already depends on local vets for health inspections for the interstate transport of animals, so it would be quite possible that welfare inspections would be done by local vets too.

But given HSUS’s opinions about livestock veterinarians, it wouldn’t surprise me if they lobbied to make themselves, not vets, the official inspection body. Either way, it would cost the farmers money for a redundant (and sometimes completely unnecessary) service, which means they can’t buy more livestock.

Now, I will earn a better living as a vet (through pregnancy checks and other vital services) if there are more livestock in my area than if I performed more services on less livestock. More importantly, I want to see family farms grow so they can continue for several more generations, not stagnate because of government intrusion.

The Great Plains states have seen a sea change—pushed by HSUS from Washington, DC—in what happens to unwanted horses. There used to be a legitimate slaughter industry, and now the federal government (thanks to Wayne Pacelle) has told the USDA it can’t spend money for horse-slaughter inspectors. (No inspections means no slaughter.) Do you agree with the assessment of some who say this policy shift has resulted in literally tens of thousands of horses being abandoned, and still more sent to Mexico for slaughter with little or no humane standards? Many people who have never been around horses tend to think slaughtering one is horrible, like killing a pet. How would you explain this controversy to them?

I don’t just agree this is an atrocity. I’ve seen it.

My great-grandpa built our family’s farm through breeding horses, but now we don’t even bother with breeding horses anymore. Why should we? We can buy registered yearling foals at horse sales for $50 or less. We’ve bought them for as little as $10. I can get a horse for less than the cost of a good meal!

People have to lock their horse trailers when they go to sales, but not because they’re afraid of theft: If they don’t lock them up, someone might dump an unwanted horse on them. I've had people beg our family to take their horses for free, just because they cannot get rid of them.

The number of horses showing up at rescues has skyrocketed, and horse neglect cases have followed a similar trend. We had a person in our county with 80 starving horses.He couldn't afford to keep them, and he couldn’t sell them either. The county took them, but even the government didn’t know what to do with them. Nobody wants them.

All these tragedies could be fixed with a simple solution: Allow the return of domestic horse slaughter. In America, we make horses completely and instantaneously unconscious for slaughter. The animal is unconscious faster this way than if they were given euthanasia solution. That doesn’t always happen in Mexico, which can involve stabbing the horse in the neck to paralyze it, but not render it unconscious.

While many Americans have no desire to eat horse meat (I’ve never had it either), others will. And there’s clearly an export market for it too. If commercial slaughter is the best way to make sure unwanted horses are humanely euthanized, instead of dumped or starved, then that’s truly the most compassionate option.

You clearly don’t pull punches. But setting aside your pride in your future profession, can you explain to our readers what’s wrong with letting HSUS put new animal welfare standards on the table for layer hens and hogs? If the far more reasonable American Humane Association had proposed the same thing, would farmers and veterinarians have objected so loudly? Put another way, are farmers and ranchers in “flyover country” fighting the issues, or are they fighting HSUS because the thought of a $100 million animal rights group in charge of their animals scares them?

We are fighting HSUS, since its leaders have no desire to improve animal agriculture. They want it eliminated. The American Humane Association actually does humane certification, and utilizes scientific methods to develop humane handling procedures and housing. AHA also promotes changes in the layer hen and hog industries; but unlike HSUS, it offers realistic, cost-effective solutions that farmers can actually afford to convert to over the course of time.

HSUS likes to pretend that livestock farming has been in a decades-long standstill. But farmers in every industry have always changed their operating procedures as new information and technology became available. For example, redesigned freestalls in dairies now allow for cows to get up more easily and quietly. And enclosed handling chutes for beef cattle have greatly improved the animal welfare on the ranch.

HSUS purposely ignores this information because they have no interest in helping animals. If they did, they wouldn’t hold a gun to our head and scream, “do it our way or else!” Ironically, if we didn’t have to use our resources fighting HSUS, we could be using them to research and develop newer and better techniques to improve animal welfare.

Like a growing number of young people, you’ve invested your own time getting the message about HSUS out to the public. How would you encourage your peers to follow suit?

Other than being active with Humanewatch, I’d suggest a couple of things. First, when you read an article online about animal issues, comment on it. You may feel like you're just one voice out of hundreds, but your positive comment may be the difference that changes someone's mind—especially if you have a job working directly with animals.

Also, talk to your friends and family about how animals are used in agriculture, research, hunting, and other parts of American life and culture. The vast majority of people are not opposed to these activities; they just want to know that animals are treated with decency. Your one-on-one communication is always far more effective than any HSUS ad.

Veterinary school is harder to get into than medical school these days. We’ve seen family members go through incredibly demanding academic curricula and residency training, and they don’t exactly earn cardiologists’ salaries. What is it about working with animals that made veterinary medicine your default go-to career? And, to whatever extent HSUS has managed to marginalize the reputation of veterinarians, how can your generation of young animal doctors make things right again?

I wouldn’t do anything else with my life. I knew I wanted to be a vet from early in high school, when I first seriously considered my future. I went into “vet med” not for the medicine, but specifically because I wanted a career where I would work hands-on with livestock every day.

I developed my love for animals back home on the farm, and I knew I wanted to spend my life with the creatures that were so central to my identity. You can learn so much by looking into the eyes of a horse, by seeing ducks moving almost synchronized in their flock around the yard, or even by watching an old cow chewing her cud. Animals are not just a part of my life; they are essential to my existence. I know that I’m not alone; my classmates share my sentiments.

The Humane Society of the United States has tried to marginalize veterinarians’ reputations because we threaten their monopoly on determining what is “humane” and what isn’t. But most people aren’t fooled when they meet real animal lovers. I’m positive that if young veterinarians spread their message to the public, the jokesters at HSUS will never be able to compete.