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Witnessing farm animal abuse during work experience
  1. Richard Brown


THIS series gives readers the opportunity to consider and contribute to discussion of some of the ethical dilemmas that can arise in veterinary practice. Each month, a case scenario is presented, followed by discussion of some of the issues involved.

In addition, a possible way forward is suggested; however, there is rarely a cut-and-dried answer in such cases, and readers may wish to suggest an alternative approach. This month’s dilemma, ‘Witnessing farm animal abuse during work experience’, was submitted and is discussed by Richard Brown. Readers with comments to contribute are invited to send them as soon as possible, so that they can be considered for publication in the next issue.

The series is being coordinated by Steven McCulloch, a practising vet with a PhD in the ethics of veterinary policy. It aims to provide a framework that will help practitioners find solutions when facing similar dilemmas.

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Richard Brown qualified from the University of Cambridge in 1981. He gained an MSc in tropical veterinary medicine from the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies in 1986. He has served as a veterinarian with various overseas governments and has practised for over 20 years in the UK. He is currently an associate director at the School of Veterinary Medicine at City University in Hong Kong.

Witnessing farm animal abuse during work experience

Box 1:

A brilliant student has just left school and gained a place to enter veterinary school. She has been asked to improve her dairy experience before taking up her place. The student is in the fifth week of a six week work placement on a local dairy farm. The farm manager has been helpful, giving good guidance and covering up for her mistakes. His conduct of routine matters (such as disbudding and castration) reflects a genuine care for animals. Each week a group of large fattening barley steers are weighed to check growth rates. This week one steer is fractious and on exiting the crush it inadvertently stands with all its weight on the farm manager’s toe. He screams and in a blind anger, he grabs the metal pole at the back of the crush and strikes the steer five times on the head with all his force. The steer collapses at which point the manager comes to his senses and begs the student to forget what she has seen because he will lose his job. The steer regains consciousness seconds later and, with some blood running down its nose, walks off dazed. Ten minutes later it is hard to spot which steer was assaulted. To the student’s knowledge, there is no one else on the farm. What should she do?

Box 2:

Any thoughts?

Readers with views to contribute on ‘Witnessing farm animal abuse during work experience’ should e-mail them to inpractice@ so that they can be considered for publication in the next issue. The deadline for receipt of comments is Friday August 18. Please limit contributions to 200 words.

Issues to consider

Extreme violence is known to occur on farms worldwide. The student should take into account that according to her experience so far this is an abnormal event. She must think calmly and clearly. The simple moves, even if they seem simplistic to her, might be the best.

There might be an urge to be immediately heroic or principled, either by stating she will report the man or immediately leaving the farm to report him. However this risks further anger and possible assault. But during the previous four weeks his behaviour has been completely normal so she should aim to defuse the situation.

This assault was illegal and caused unnecessary suffering. Fortunately for the animal, its cranial architecture has helped it withstand blows which would kill a person. They will certainly have fractured the outer skull, but the inner cranial bones may well be intact. Although the event appears isolated, it is possible that this man may have attacked cattle many times before with no audience.

It appears that the manager has acted in ‘blind anger’. This term by itself is not recognised by the m edical profession as a valid descriptor of a psychological state. If a medical definition of his behaviour is found it will be after other clinical details are taken into account and his behaviour will be regarded as part of a known psychological condition (Mayo Clinic 2015, Research Autism 2016).

Veterinary surgeons, all of whom have taken an oath that ‘my constant endeavour [is] to ensure the health and welfare of animals committed to my care’, would have no option but to, at some appropriately safe stage, report the manager. A veterinary student has not taken the oath but now is regarded by many to have joined the profession as soon as studies have commenced. One can argue that veterinary students too have a duty to report the manager. Both groups could with clear conscience use deceit to leave the farm safely. The student has not yet commenced studies, she has taken no oath nor been initiated into the profession. It may be more reasonable for her to behave like a member of the general public, who should still report the matter but is not duty bound to do so.

As the animal has recovered it may not be straightforward to gain enough evidence to effect a prosecution. The student will have to recollect correctly the tag number or enough to distinguish it from others. The full cooperation of the owner would be required. To gain the best evidence the animal would be euthanased and a thorough postmortem conducted. Bearing in mind it will be the student’s word against the manager, it may not be easy for the owner or regulatory officers to have the conviction to do this. Alternatively, inspecting all the steers through the crush might enable the animal to be identified and tests would need to be carried out. These tests could take place in the university veterinary school and could be costly (X rays, scanning) and in normal circumstances should produce evidence of pathology that is consistent with the assault described. The Crown Prosecution Service or the SSPCA would assess the possibility of conviction. The manager would likely thoroughly clean the metal pole to remove any evidence.

The student should take into account that usually, but not always, things come out in the end. For example, in this age of smartphones, they may have been photographed. If unknown to her the manager has done this before he may be subject of ongoing investigations. In short, there is no guarantee that this matter can be kept secret. This is a practical consideration and some say it should not influence decision making.

Possible ways forward

There are four obvious courses of action, although this does not preclude others.

  • Report the manager immediately.

  • Lie to the manager, saying she will not report him, but once home or in safe location report him and provide a statement.

  • Tell the manager she will say nothing. Then never go back to the farm. She may well need to lie to others if she does not go back and does not reveal what happened.

  • Tell the manager she will say nothing. Go back to work the next day as though nothing has happened.

In this case, the primary duty of the student is her own preservation. Not only for her own benefit but because others would suffer if she was hurt. This justifies a white lie and deceit.

Reporting the manager immediately is risky. This is a sackable offence so it is not possible to be certain how the farm manager will behave.

Agreeing to be silent (lying) and then reporting the manager is probably the best option. However, it will have a personal cost and she might need counselling over this traumatic event. There is no guarantee of a conviction so there may be no closure to this issue. The process of giving evidence might be stressful and appearing in court will be. Also giving evidence and then subsequently learning that the case has not been pursued, or is pursued and fails will be stressful. Therefore, it is possible that in the interest of the student’s welfare, parents and the regulatory authorities might not pursue this case.

Not saying anything and not going back to the farm is very much character dependent and has disadvantages. The truth may come out and she will then be assumed to have condoned the event. More importantly, she will have learnt to lie and succeed at it: not a good start to a veterinary career. Lying usually means one has to keep on such that the tale gets taller and taller. Few have the stamina to be consistent over a long period of time and there is the possibility of her getting caught out in the future.

Going back to the farm is not without risks. There is no guarantee that she will not be faced with the same situation again. This ‘pact of silence’ means she will have to keep the matter to herself. The only merit, assuming this was a genuinely one-off event and that the animal makes a full and uneventful recovery, is that she would achieve her personal objective of gaining the required dairy experience. From an animal welfare viewpoint, she has let a person get away with it and he may reoffend.

Finally, bargaining with the manager, ‘I will not say anything so long as you give the steer something for the pain,’ is a form of condoning the action.


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