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Illustrated portrait of Crystal Heath. Lauren Tamaki for Vox

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Crystal Heath wants veterinary medicine to live up to its values

The US veterinary profession props up factory farm cruelty. A coalition of vets is fighting to change that.

Marina Bolotnikova is a deputy editor for Vox’s Future Perfect section. Before joining Vox, she reported on factory farming for national outlets including the Guardian, the Intercept, and elsewhere.

What are veterinarians for? Superficially, the answer might seem obvious: Vets are just like human doctors, but for animals. They care for our cats, dogs, and sick animals of all kinds.

The reality is a lot more complicated, and it reflects a growing divide within the veterinary profession that’s shaping the treatment of tens of billions of animals raised for food on factory farms.

Veterinary medicine, I’ve learned through two years of reporting, doesn’t always work in the best interest of animals. The profession accommodated itself to the industrialization of animal agriculture in the 20th century, working in lockstep with the meat industry. Today, leading US veterinary institutions — chiefly the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) — are major players in the factory farm system, helping to develop, codify, and lend moral legitimacy to cruel practices that cause animals extreme suffering.

California-based veterinarian Crystal Heath has a very different vision for her profession. With her nonprofit Our Honor, she’s leading a movement of vets challenging what she’s called the “corporate capture” of veterinary medicine by industries like factory farming.

Heath’s activism crystallized in 2020, when, in the wake of Covid-induced slaughterhouse shutdowns, the livestock industry suddenly had a glut of slaughter-ready animals that couldn’t be processed into meat. The pork industry, in search of a way to quickly and cheaply get rid of hundreds of thousands of surplus pigs, settled on a gruesome mass killing method called “ventilation shutdown plus”: Pigs were packed into sealed sheds and subjected to extreme heat and steam, in excess of 140 degrees Fahrenheit, eventually dying of heatstroke. After this, they were disposed of.

Ventilation shutdown plus (VSD+) is one of the most excruciating ways to cull farm animals, but it’s quickly become a standard practice in the meat industry — during the 2022-2023 avian influenza outbreak, it’s been used to mass kill tens of millions of chickens and turkeys on poultry farms that had been hit with a flu infection. And that’s in large part because of the AVMA, which wrote guidance approving the method that became the basis of federal policy.

Heath made statements to the media condemning ventilation shutdown plus, organized hundreds of fellow vets to petition the AVMA, and helped submit a resolution to the AVMA’s House of Delegates to stop condoning the method. She partnered with animal rights groups that are often anathema to the veterinary industry. Her advocacy made her the target of concerted attacks by the meat industry and livestock veterinarians, accusing her of animal rights extremism that was harming the profession.

Realizing that the fear of retaliation was preventing vets from speaking out against unethical practices, Heath founded Our Honor to build a network of vets and other animal care professionals challenging industry power (often with a deep sense of humor). They organize to change AVMA policy, advocate for legislation, and, through Heath’s extensive public records work, shed light on veterinary medicine’s role in meat industry atrocities. The group wants to fundamentally reorient the profession, making it possible for vets to imagine an alternative to industry capture and give them the language to fight back against industry propaganda. To train the next generation of vets to think differently about the human relationship with animals, Our Honor recently launched a scholarship for veterinary students.

In her day job as a practicing vet, Heath has spayed and neutered more than 30,000 cats, dogs, and other animals in the Bay Area and on volunteer trips around the world — one of the most effective means of improving the welfare of companion animals. She hopes, however, that she’ll be among the last generation of shelter vets because there will one day be no more homeless cats and dogs — and by the same token, she wants to inspire livestock vets to work toward the eradication of their own jobs and the end of the meat industry.

For too long, the American veterinary industry has represented the interests of humans who own and exploit animals rather than animals themselves. A day might come when Heath is recognized in veterinary history for her vital act of imagination — paving the way to a future where vets fight the factory farm industry rather than work on its behalf.

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