Betrayal of Trust
Lesley G. King, MVB, Diplomate ACVECC & ACVIM (Small Animal Internal Medicine) University of Pennsylvania
Cruelty happens. Veterinarians see it every day. Often it’s a result of ignorance or neglect. It can be masked as sport, “training,” agriculture, or discovery. And sometimes there is no excuse.
WHEN IS IT CRUELTY?
The bow-and-arrow shooting of a cat by a veterinarian earlier this year sparked a great deal of discussion. Apparently, the species matters. For example, I wonder whether that image would have triggered the same response if the victim had been a coyote or a fox, arguably species with a similar level of sentience to that of a cat. And possibly even less reaction would have occurred if it had been a groundhog or a squirrel.
Compare that Facebook post to similar images of a trophy fish caught on a hook, or the head of a recently shot 10-point buck that is being proudly held up for display by a hunter. Something about the fact that the victim was a domestic cat really seemed to shock us, and it certainly grabbed the attention of the social media masses. Another professional recently experienced an even more emotional and persistent backlash when his “big-game hunting” became hot news. The media and public reaction to the killing of the much-loved lion, Cecil, by a Minnesota dentist resulted in closure of his dental clinic and the need for him to go into hiding for his own safety.
Are domesticated species more worthy than wildlife in that regard? Are treasured species, such as the African big cats, in the same category? From the point of view of the public, it seems that they are. Is that right? I don’t know. And that doesn’t even begin to address the Pandora’s box of questions about whether hunting or fishing should be categorized under the label of “cruelty.”
HELD TO A HIGHER STANDARD
Veterinarians are expected to hold themselves to a higher standard than the public and other professionals with regard to infliction of cruelty on animals. I think most of us would agree that this is reasonable—we’re supposed to be educated about animal welfare—and most of us chose this profession due to our love of animals.
I’m sure the Texas veterinarian now regrets posting her picture of the cat. It was a thoughtless impulse—a moment of poor judgment—without consideration that it could affect her career or the image of our profession. It’s certainly not the first time a medical professional has been in trouble for posting the wrong thing on Facebook.
After the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, some doctors posted selfies of themselves laughing with injured patients in the background; others posted pictures of themselves with guns or alcoholic beverages while wearing scrubs. Those postings were widely denounced and considered a violation of the Hippocratic Oath. Other doctors and nurses have lost their jobs due to social media postings venting about their frustrations with specific patients.
RESPECT, HOPE, TRUST
In my opinion, the reaction to the Facebook post of the dead cat was not really about cruelty. It was about respect. The comment that accompanied the photograph came across as almost gloating; pride about the kill. That disrespect triggered a massive and visceral reaction.
I can’t put it better than the words of a good friend of mine, veterinarian Dr. Liz Arbittier: “All life has value. When we have to take a life, it should be done with as little pain and distress as possible, with respect for the dignity associated with that life. As veterinarians, we should never lose sight of that.”
Clients come to us with hope. They ask us to respect the value of their pets’ lives; they trust us as we carry their beloved pets out of sight into the back room of the hospital. Each owner has an expectation that we will treat his or her pet with respect—not scruff it too hard, not slam it on the table while under anesthesia, and not have a cavalier attitude to ending its life if we recommend euthanasia.
For many social media readers, the image of that dead cat and the accompanying disrespectful words were a betrayal of that trust.
THE PATH BACK
To the veterinarian who posted that picture and made those comments, I feel for you, because we’ve all made mistakes. Unless you are a robot, you must have been significantly impacted by that event. There are things you can do to put this right. Maybe you are already out there volunteering for a welfare organization—I bet that doesn’t make the news.
One thing I do know about veterinarians is that we’re a pretty decent bunch of people, with ability to forgive a mistake if the person involved has learned from it and is genuinely trying to make reparations. What have you learned about yourself and about being a veterinarian? How can we as a profession help you find your way forward from this? How can we better teach future veterinarians that trust is earned and should never be betrayed, and that we must always respect the value of a life?
— Lesley King, Editor in Chief