The Shortage in Large Animal Veterinarians

Earlier this week, I listened to an NPR interview of the newly elected President of the American Veterinary Medical Association, Gregory Hammer. Dr. Hammer discussed, among other things, the diminishing pool of applicants to veterinary school who want to become large animal veterinarians. More applicants than in the past are interested in treating companion animals rather than “food supply” animals, and this change has contributed to a shortage of medical practitioners for livestock. Dr. Hammer had some interesting theories about why things have changed, including the fact that fewer people live near farms or have any familiarity with the sorts of animals found on farms.

I have a different theory that probably does not account for much of the variance but provides a more hopeful philosophical account, from my perspective. I believe that there is something inherently paradoxical about a “food supply” veterinarian. The job of a doctor is to help heal her patients when they are ill and relieve their suffering when they are in pain. People who have a companion animal bring him or her to the vet out of love and attachment, the way we would do for any family member. And the veterinarian's practice revolves around accommodating that loving approach.

When my dog ate several boxes of raisins (toxic to dogs’ kidneys), for example, my veterinarian induced vomiting and kept her on an I.V. for days. And when she had a urinary tract infection, he prescribed antibiotics (the canine equivalent of amoxicillin). Dr. Fried is warm and affectionate toward my dog and has taken good care of all three canine wonders who have enriched my life over the years. He cares about and values his patients (independently of their relationship to their “owner”/parent).

“Food supply” animals are brought into existence and killed for their flesh (or first used for their reproductive fluids and later killed for their flesh). Farmers hire veterinarians to maintain these animals in a condition that will best serve this ultimate objective of creating marketable food. When a farmer hires a veterinarian to deliver a baby calf, for example, the point is to help facilitate the mother cow’s production of milk and to usher in the ingredients of veal. The “food supply” veterinarian may sincerely love animals, as James Herriot, author of “All Creatures Great and Small” appeared to. But he is invited into the lives of animals as a kind of mechanic, there to fix a machine that has temporarily broken down, not to heal a patient who has value in and of herself.

For an admittedly imperfect but useful analogy, consider the psychiatrist hired to restore a death row inmate to competency -- sufficient mental health to enable the State to execute him lawfully. A movie that addressed this very subject, Dead Man Out, did a great job of showing the inherent contradiction of a doctor occupying this role. Though the psychiatrist – played by Danny Glover – begins the process of psychotherapy thinking he can treat his patient without thinking about what happens once the man becomes well, in the end, he finds this impossible and acts accordingly.

In light of this paradox, it may be that at least a few of the people deciding not to become “food supply” veterinarians have done so out of principle. They sense that it is wrong to participate in a process that is more cruel to more animals than anything else on the planet and that is so utterly indifferent to the interests and wellbeing of intelligent, emotional, and innocent creatures. They understand, I hope, that it is wrong even if – maybe especially if -- in the short term, one’s only objective is to alleviate animal suffering.