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An image of two people in lab coats, their faces in shadow, looking at a clipboard. Behind them is a pig and a farm house, the sky a dramatic ombre of yellow and red. Christina Animashaun/Vox

The bitter civil war dividing American veterinarians

To fight the cruel meat industry, veterinarians have to fight their own profession.

The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), the premier organization that represents most of America’s 121,000 veterinarians, might not seem like an obvious target for protests. But at the organization’s annual convention last summer, disruptions were anticipated — animal activists had been gearing up to protest the AVMA for months. Outside the conference in downtown Philadelphia, they unfurled an enormous banner that read, “TELL AVMA: STOP ROASTING ANIMALS ALIVE.”

The protesters were referring to the AVMA’s backing of a method of mass culling animals on factory farms known as “ventilation shutdown plus.” It involves sealing off the animals’ housing and turning up the heat to lethal temperatures so that they die of heatstroke over the course of hours, like a dog dying in a hot car. The method, known as VSD+ for short, was used widely by the poultry and egg industries to cull tens of millions of chickens and turkeys during this past year’s bird flu epidemic.

It is also widely thought to be the most cruel, distressing option for exterminating animals — a practice that opponents say amounts to essentially cooking animals to death.

Yet it continues to be commonly deployed, in part because of AVMA policy. While the organization says ventilation shutdown alone, without the addition of extra heat or carbon dioxide, is not recommended, it deems VSD+ “permitted in constrained circumstances” if more preferred methods aren’t available. This finding became the basis for the US Department of Agriculture’s bird flu containment policy, allowing VSD+ to rapidly become a meat industry default. The method’s prevalence has drawn the attention of federal lawmakers: Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) both recently introduced bills to end its use.

Three activists hold a large banner that reads “TELL AVMA: STOP ROASTING ANIMALS ALIVE. AVMAShamScience.com”
Activists protest outside the AVMA’s summer 2022 convention.
Direct Action Everywhere

In her past work as an emergency veterinarian, Gwendolen Reyes-Illg has cared for numerous animals suffering from heatstroke. Its symptoms are almost too disturbing to print: “chunks of mucosa and blood come pouring out of the rectum, and vomiting of blood is common as well,” as Reyes-Illg told me for a previous story. While Reyes-Illg treats her patients’ heatstroke, with VSD+, that same condition is induced on purpose, with the AVMA’s stamp of approval. “I think if you surveyed the veterinarians in the United States, the vast majority of them have no idea that this is happening, and if they knew they would be outraged,” said Reyes-Illg, who is a veterinary advisor to the Animal Welfare Institute and is among the veterinarians organizing to withdraw their profession’s support for VSD+. More than 1,500 vets have signed a petition urging the AVMA to stop condoning the method. So far, their efforts have been unsuccessful.

The controversy over ventilation shutdown represents the most recent, high-profile example of long-simmering tensions over veterinary medicine’s values. While the public associates veterinarians with cats and dogs, imagining it as a job for animal lovers, veterinary medicine is also deeply embedded in the factory farm system. Veterinarians provide the research, expertise, and scientific and moral authority that allows the US to raise nearly 10 billion land animals in intensive confinement every year.

“At present, the official stance of the veterinary profession in the US often serves to legitimize practices that cause extreme, prolonged pain and suffering on a massive scale, such as intensive confinement and the use of heatstroke as a method of mass on-farm killing,” Reyes-Illg said in an email. “The veterinary profession helps shield such practices from questioning and criticism.” But a new generation of veterinarians is challenging what they see as the “corporate capture” of their profession, as vet Crystal Heath put it, by the meat industry and other sectors that kill animals for profit.

If they’re successful, they argue, they could help topple a crucial pillar of support for factory farming. While the AVMA doesn’t control what methods meat producers choose to use, the veterinary profession’s positions inform legislation and rule-making around how animals are allowed to be treated. The USDA’s rules on how to kill poultry birds due to avian flu, for example, are taken directly from AVMA guidelines. Vets are also, in my experience, the preferred excuse used by the meat industry and regulators to justify extreme cruelty. Ask an agriculture department bureaucrat why they’re condoning mass extermination via heatstroke, and they’re likely to shrug and say, it’s AVMA-approved (that is almost verbatim what I was told by Chloe Carson, who was then the communications director for Iowa’s agriculture department, in April).

“The AVMA is critical in our political system for animal welfare, so Congress tends to think of the AVMA when it comes to animal things,” said livestock veterinarian James Reynolds, a professor at Western University’s vet school. “Congress will take no action until the AVMA changes its position” on how animals are treated in the food system.

The schism in veterinary medicine is long in the making

While VSD+ has emerged as a flashpoint among vets only in the last few years, conflicts over factory farming have been long in the making. The US Supreme Court will soon release its decision on a pork industry lawsuit that could strike down one of the strongest farm animal protection laws in the country. Under challenge is California’s Proposition 12, which bans the sale of pork raised using gestation crates — narrow metal cages, not much bigger than an adult pig, where pregnant pigs are kept for most of their lives, unable to turn around or stretch their limbs. Pigs are often observed biting the bars of the crates, among other signs of distress. But in a brief filed in June, the American Association of Swine Veterinarians, an organization closely tied to the pork industry, urged the Court to strike down Prop 12. “Proposition 12 is likely to harm animal welfare rather than help it,” the group argued.

When she read that brief, Reyes-Illg remembers, “I was horrified that this might be the sole message the Supreme Court would hear from veterinarians about gestation crates.” She led an effort to submit a brief to the court, which was signed by 378 veterinarians and animal welfare scientists, refuting the swine veterinarians’ claims as inaccurate and driven by pork industry interests. “The weight of the scientific evidence strongly supports the conclusion that gestation crates cause profound, avoidable suffering and deprive pigs of a minimally acceptable standard of welfare,” they wrote.

Four pigs are seen inside gestation crates — small cages about the size of their bodies. One bites the cage bars and appears distressed.
Pigs inside a gestation crate facility in Canada.
Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals Media

Gestation crates have been a topic of heated debate in the AVMA. Its policy statement on housing for pregnant pigs says they should be provided with “adequate quality and quantity of space that allows sows to assume normal postures and express normal patterns of behavior” and that there are “advantages and disadvantages” to different systems, including gestation crates. The organization hasn’t, in any document I could find, taken a position on gestation crate bans like Prop 12, but it declined to comment on a question about this.

In an email in March that was obtained by Vox through a public records request, Michael Costin, assistant director of the AVMA’s division of animal and public health, alerted the AASV about the federal PIGS Act, a House bill that would ban gestation crates. “You may want to touch base with the AASV reps so they are prepared when this comes to them,” he wrote, noting that the AVMA’s animal agriculture liaison committee and animal welfare committee have representatives from AASV on them. “I assume AASV would oppose this bill.” Costin didn’t respond to requests for comment on the correspondence.

The gap between veterinarians like Reyes-Illg and those aligned with industry reflects a longtime debate in veterinary ethics: Should vets represent the interests of animals, or those of the humans who own and profit from them?

Veterinary medicine encompasses society’s paradoxical relationship with nonhuman animals, from love and companionship to commodification and killing. Today, most US veterinarians care for companion animals, like cats, dogs, and other pets, but it wasn’t always that way. Modern veterinary medicine has its origins in treating animals raised for food and horses used for transportation. “I don’t think there’s any question that in North America, organized veterinary medicine” — institutions like the AVMA — “by and large reflects that history,” said Lisa Moses, a veterinarian and bioethicist at Harvard Medical School. “The people who are the national spokespeople for veterinary medicine are still very much entrenched in food production and in the agriculture industry in a way that the majority of practicing veterinarians are not.”

These disparities, combined with the factory farm-ification of animal agriculture, have led to a “growing schism between the companion animal side of the field and the food animal production side of the field,” Moses said.

As meat production industrialized, the profession accommodated it. “The veterinary response was largely a technocratic one, technological, and very much politically aligned with animal production,” said Susan Jones, a science historian at the University of Minnesota and a veterinarian. Economic shifts in agriculture necessarily drove changes in how industry vets viewed their patients, “seeing animals less as living sentient beings and seeing them more as production units,” Jones said. “This means that [vets] don’t see animals anymore as individuals in need of health care or welfare considerations. You see them as populations.”

Professional backlash for criticizing factory farming can be steep

Veterinarian Crystal Heath, who is one of the best-known critics of her profession’s relationship with the meat industry, seeks every opportunity to start conversations about how vets could end the biggest harms facing animals, like ventilation shutdown, rather than participate in them. She arrived at the AVMA convention in late July with that goal in mind. On her first day there, she and her friend Daniela Castillo, a fellow vet pushing for change in the profession, said they noticed being watched by a security guard. When they approached to ask him what was going on, he explained that he’d been told to look out for them because they might be protesting. “Obviously, we’re being surveilled,” Heath said in a video posted to Twitter that evening. “It seems like the AVMA is extremely unwelcoming and is not supportive of people who are doing animal advocacy.” The AVMA declined to comment on these allegations.

Heath, a Berkeley-based shelter veterinarian who devotes much of her time to spaying and neutering cats and dogs, was used to this kind of treatment. Her advocacy has made her a lightning rod within the profession. While she’s hardly the first vet to voice misgivings about factory farming, she’s done so particularly publicly — often bringing her critiques to social media, engaging with audiences outside the profession, and posting examples of veterinarians conducting gruesome research on the meat industry’s behalf. “We should use our innovation to end the exploitation of animals instead of devising more macabre killing methods,” she said in a tweet last fall. And although she grew up steeped in animal agriculture, she’s now vegan, which can feel like an existential threat to industry veterinarians.

“I was vice president of my 4H club,” an organization that trains kids in animal agriculture, Heath said. “I raised goats; I was an animal science major.” Now, she said, some veterinary colleagues view her as biased for repudiating animal agriculture, but she points out that the bias runs both ways: “I could easily argue that you have a biased perspective because you are committed to eating animal products. I look at all of these people who they consider to be unbiased, and they all work for industry.”

A 2020 story in the Intercept revealed how Heath was branded an extremist and targeted for her advocacy by the meat industry. A flier of unknown provenance had circulated on Facebook, displaying her photo under the warning “BEWARE” and claiming she supported the Animal Liberation Front and Earth Liberation Front, radical groups from an earlier era of animal activism, which she said she knew nothing about at the time. “I got kicked out of all the veterinary Facebook groups that I relied on on a daily basis for networking,” she remembers. Some livestock vets openly berated her. “Crystal your deranged activism here and throughout the animal agriculture industry is quite annoying,” one vet commented on a post she made in a Facebook group. “[Y]ou’re literally, by name, a topic of conversation in board rooms from Ag business to organized veterinary medicine across the nation. Your name is literally toxic.”

Heath regularly receives messages from vets and veterinary students who sympathize with her but say they’re afraid to speak out because of the potential consequences for their careers. Daniela Castillo, who’s worked extensively in shelters and spay-and-neuter, said that she’s been ridiculed so much for being vegan that she’s considered leaving veterinary medicine — a problem she feels is compounded by being a woman of color in an overwhelmingly white profession. “People become so defensive,” she said. “They either get angry or they treat you as a joke.”

“It’s not science when you have a bias at the beginning”

Heath realized that veterinarians needed a support network to be able to withstand industry retaliation. In fall 2020, she founded Our Honor, a nonprofit that helps vets challenge unethical practices in their profession. It was a few months after the public learned about ventilation shutdown — not in the poultry industry, but in the pork industry. Due to meatpacking plant shutdowns at the beginning of the Covid pandemic, meat producers couldn’t slaughter as many animals as they normally do — so, instead, they killed and disposed of millions of them. Activists from the animal rights group Direct Action Everywhere were tipped off that Iowa Select Farms was using ventilation shutdown plus, a then little-known method, to exterminate its pigs. In an investigation later covered by the Intercept, the activists secretly planted recorders and captured audio of the pigs shrieking for two-and-a-half hours as they were killed with high heat and steam.

Aerial view of a truck full of dead pigs, with a worker nearby moving four large dead pigs that are not the ground.
A worker moves dead pigs after a mass cull at Iowa Select Farms in 2020.
Direct Action Everywhere

These revelations, and the fact that the AVMA considered VSD+ acceptable, galvanized a coalition of farm animal advocacy groups and veterinarians who are AVMA members. They petitioned the AVMA and submitted a resolution to its House of Delegates, a voting body that guides the organization’s policy, to re-classify VSD+ as “not recommended” in its guidelines. They wrote op-eds and ran an ad in the Philadelphia Inquirer ahead of this summer’s AVMA convention that read: “You wouldn’t say it’s okay to roast an animal alive. So why would the American Veterinary Medical Association?”

The European Union considers any type of VSD to be a method that’s “likely to be highly painful” and “must never be used.” But the AVMA hasn’t changed its position, and there are signs that it doesn’t intend to. In 2021, the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association published a case study of ventilation shutdown plus, by veterinarian Angela Baysinger and three other vets, in which 243,016 pigs were killed with temperatures reaching as high as 170 degrees Fahrenheit. To achieve heat that intense, the paper notes, “commercial-grade mobile steam generators typically used in the railroad industry to heat railcars were obtained.” The study measured the animals’ “time to silent.” “I think that report was published as a way to validate what they were doing and lend legitimacy to” ventilation shutdown, Heath said. Baysinger, who is vice president of the American Association of Swine Veterinarians and serves on the AVMA’s animal welfare committee, didn’t respond to a request for comment.

The only research on VSD+ in poultry birds cited in the AVMA’s guidelines is an unpublished, poultry industry-funded report, which has been criticized and accused of lacking scientific validity. At the International Symposium on Animal Mortality Management this past June, Cia Johnson, the head of the AVMA’s animal welfare division, said: “We need data from you … Even if it’s not published, if it’s a case report, if it’s proprietary data, if it’s unpublished data, the panel needs it. Some of these methods are at risk of leaving the guidelines. I think you probably have an idea of what those methods might be. We need data to support them staying in the document.” Johnson didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment.

“This intrigues me: AVMA leadership actually put out calls for research to support ventilation shutdown. That’s not science. It’s not science when you have a bias at the beginning,” said James Reynolds, the Western University professor. “Their position is completely unreasonable. Not founded on reason, not founded on science.”

A hen is seen inside a glass cage and hooked up to electrodes. She appears collapsed on her side and panting.
Screenshot from footage of 2016 ventilation shutdown experiments conducted at North Carolina State University, which are cited in AVMA guidelines.
Footage by North Carolina State University obtained by Animal Outlook via public records request.

Heath and her allies aren’t giving up, despite the AVMA’s intransigence. In the fall, they gathered 278 signatures to submit yet another resolution to change ventilation shutdown plus’s status to “not recommended,” for the AVMA’s House of Delegates to vote on at its next meeting this month. But the AVMA didn’t allow the resolution to move forward, citing procedural reasons.

The AVMA declined an interview for this story, but said in a statement that it “believes animals should only be depopulated in emergency situations, and only after all other options are considered and found not to be viable … Alternatives are exhaustively sought, but when thousands to millions of animals are impacted by such emergencies, depopulation is sometimes the only option. In many cases, the method used to depopulate the animals is limited or dictated by the situation (e.g., containment to control disease spread, natural disaster, or other unprecedented urgent situation). Selecting a depopulation method often involves ‘least bad’ choices; however, failing to depopulate animals in a timely manner can lead to even worse suffering for those animals and/or pose unacceptable health and safety risks for the people who are caring for them.”

Entrenched factory farming prevents vets from asking bigger ethical questions

Even knowing how livestock veterinarians see their roles, it’s hard not to wonder how they can willingly inflict so much suffering on animals. One answer might be that they believe, or their vocation has convinced them to believe, that there’s no other choice. “Veterinarians are stretched way, way, way too thin, and are almost always inevitably overwhelmed with work,” Lisa Moses, the bioethicist from Harvard, said. “And that does not allow you to have the mental space to ask big-picture questions. You’re just trying to figure out how to get through terrible situations as best as you can.”

Often in her advocacy, Heath said, livestock vets ask her: What else do you expect us to do? If meeting America’s demand for abundant cheap meat sometimes requires inflicting great suffering, their thinking goes, that’s the price we have to pay. “I personally believe [ventilation shutdown] is a compromise — a necessary compromise, and an unfortunate compromise,” poultry veterinarian Simon Shane, who criticized Heath and other opponents of VSD+ in a blog post, told me. “People who have protested against ventilation shutdown should provide a viable alternative.” Pressed on whether not raising so many animals in intensive confinement could be a viable alternative, he replied, “I’m in the business of feeding people” and, later, “I really don’t want to get involved in a fruitless discussion on ethics and morality.”

Other vets argue that instead of taking the American system of meat production for granted, the profession could actively challenge it. “If the only way to ensure that large swaths of our patients are not routinely killed by heatstroke is to put in place restrictions on CAFO [factory farm] size, then core principles of veterinary medical ethics, like the duties of beneficence and nonmaleficence, require that our profession advocate for such restrictions,” Reyes-Illg wrote in a letter to the AVMA on behalf of the Animal Welfare Institute in May. In June, at a continuing education course held by the American College of Animal Welfare, Cia Johnson was asked whether the AVMA has considered studying ways to reduce the need to mass cull animals. “Not at this time,” she replied.

The idea of cutting down meat production is a non-starter in the veterinary community, vets interviewed for this story agree, even though it’s considered a necessary part of addressing climate change and would surely be better for animals. When she took livestock medicine courses in vet school, Reyes-Illg said in an email, “The message I got was that pig vets had to work with industry somehow — there was never any mention that veterinarians might have a role in disrupting the ongoing expansion and intensification of animal agriculture.”

Outside North America, veterinary groups often espouse a different philosophy. “At the British Veterinary Association, we encourage everyone to consider the environmental impact of their dietary choices and have long campaigned for a ‘less and better’ approach to consuming meat,” Justine Shotton, the British Veterinary Association’s then-president, told the Daily Mail last summer.

This is the discussion that forward-thinking vets in the US dream of having. “If all the AVMA is doing is thinking about depopulation, then that’s all we’re going to get,” Heath said. “But the more the AVMA could put energy and thought into scaling down animal agriculture, then we have the possibility of moving things in the right direction.” For now, though, she and fellow animal advocates are laser-focused on ending the worst meat industry practices — on making the bad system we have a little less bad. She’s looking forward to the AVMA’s next conference this month, where she plans to keep starting conversations the AVMA would rather not have.

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