Ruminations of a Retiring Veterinarian –  Michael W. Fox

I grew up during World War 11 in the north of England surrounded by William Blake’s “satanic mills.” I came to respect the dignity of hard labor, the spirit of the Luddite and the virtues of frugality, self-reliance and serving the greater good in accord with the Golden Rule. My childhood relationships with other animals and nature and “seeing practice” from my early teens with the local country vet provided the inspiration to become a veterinarian. Soon after graduating from the Royal Veterinary College, London in 1962 I came to the USA and was fortunate to be able to contribute to the advancement of animal welfare and rights through calling for the application of animal behavior/ethology and bioethics in how other animals are cared for and regarded, be they wild or domesticated.

Beginning in the 1970s I joined many voices from academia calling for acknowledgement of animals’ right to equal and fair consideration and for their humane treatment and liberation from all forms of cruel exploitation. My critique of mis-applied science and technology adding to the social ills of humanity put me in the same league of anti-science and anti-society environmental extremists in the eyes of at least one reporter writing for U.S. News & World Report (May 13, 1996) who linked me to Theodore Kaczynski, the so-called Unabomber! Around that time my lecture to the students at one mid-western veterinary college was cancelled as I walked on to the campus and was warned by an embarrassed professor that security would be called if I did not vacate the premises immediately. Just before my lecture to the student body on factory farming and animal rights at the U. of Rochester, MN, the graduate student organizer said that the powers that be had instructed the university book store and the main one in the town not to carry any of my books!

So it was no surprise that one of the Board members of The Humane Society of the U.S, for whom I then served as scientific director, one Robert Marshak, DVM, Dean of the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, sought at this time to have me fired from the Society because I was becoming a “dangerous cult figure” according to the CEO of the Society, John Hoyt. Hoyt kept me on after I was called to the University of Pennsylvania campus to defend my concerns in a written report about the welfare, health and rights of “factory” farmed animals before a panel of various department heads involved in the livestock and poultry industries, accompanied by John Hoyt and The HSU’s lawyer (who opposed the concept of animal rights). Shortly after my report was given the German Felix-Wankel international award for research into animal welfare and published as a book by University Park Press, Baltimore MD in 1984, Farm Animals: Husbandry, Behavior and Veterinary Care.

I was too surprised at the lack of evident responsiveness by this University of Pennsylvania panel when I raised the issue of animals’ social and emotional needs because a year earlier, at the inaugural meeting at the National Academy of Science of the Institute for Laboratory Animal Resources committee addressing laboratory animals’ behavioral needs, I had my first encounter with this mind-set. Veterinarian Bernard Trum, Director of the U.S. government’s New England Regional Primate Center actually laughed in ridicule and dismissed as a non-issue the emotional needs of primates confined in small cages which I raised at the beginning of the meeting. In 1986 the State University of New York Press published my scientific treatise Laboratory Animal Husbandry: Ethology, Welfare and Experimental Variables, to fully document and legitimize my concerns.

It was evident to me that the denial of animal sentience, of their rights and inherent value by those involved in their exploitation, was a necessary distancing to avoid the censorship of conscience and of public censure and accountability. It paralleled those who exploit the natural environment as a mere resource with total disregard for the rights and intrinsic ecological value of indigenous plant and animal species and of sustainable, traditional native communities and cultures.

My non-blood brother-in-cloth, Catholic priest Matthew Fox, was silenced in 1989 by the Vatican police, headed by Cardinal Ratzinger (who subsequently became the next pope), for one year because of his appeal for a more Creation and Earth centered ethics and spirituality which, from a Christian perspective, called us to empathize so deeply with the life around us and within us that we receive the stigmata of an Earth crucified. The Cardinal’s response to the growing animal and environmental rights and justice movements at this time, which was the basis of his medieval disciplinary action against dear Matthew, was that these movements were based on “somewhat anti-technical, somewhat anti-rational concepts of man as united to nature, and have an anti-humanist element.”

It was also at this time that genetic engineering biotechnology and the patenting of life entered the global market place, facilitated by the spawning and spreading of internet services and emergence of the Cybersphere. Genomics, cybernetics and economics became the triune, three-pronged fork of the global takers (who could be healers), with their encrypted information and double dealings in the banking industry and global market place, all overseen and even sanctioned by the various regulatory agencies of corrupted nation states and communities. And by Pope after Pope! I was involved at many levels questioning these developments and extensions of our presumed dominion over other animals and the natural world, writing the appeal to the U.S. Congress to prohibit the patenting of life. I was subsequently demoted virtually silenced by the CEO and CFO of The HSUS, Paul Irwin, in 1997 because I had endorsed and written the foreword to a book critical of the pet food industry, Ann Martin’s Foods Pets Die For. Irwin was hoping to secure funding from the pet food industry regardless of the ethical cost and, as I had documented, significant risk to the health of cats and dogs, many of whom belonged to supporters of the Society that he, a former minister and Chaplain on the Good Ship Hope, controlled at that time. I subsequently published the book Not Fit for a Dog: The Truth About Manufactured Cat & Dog Food, co-authored with two veterinary authorities on the subject.

Now some twenty years later I see the business world and aligned industries seeking to change their public image to appear more animal-and environmentally friendly. This is ultimately enlightened self-interest because when we harm the Earth we harm ourselves and when we demean animals we do no less to our own humanity. All lives matter.

I regard humans as animals who share with other sentient beings a will to live and a telos or intrinsic nature and purpose which we should respect and not thwart or deform. Nor should we harm their ethos or spirit by not enabling them to develop, express, experience and satisfy their intrinsic natures and basic needs. Through the prism of recorded human history we know what we have done since time immemorial, from civilization to civilization, to each other and to other sentient beings, from breaking the spirits of elephants to setting our dogs on bears and slaves. Today we may have animal welfare codes and protection/anti-cruelty laws, but how far have we really come with our modern, high-tech factory farms, commercial fishing and whaling, genetically engineered and patented, often deliberately bred diseased and deformed animals?

How far have we come since 1865 when Francis Wayland, D.D., LL.D., (late President of Brown University and Professor of Moral Philosophy) wrote in his book The Elements of Moral Science (New York, Sheldon & Co.), “Brutes are sensitive beings, capable of, probably, as great degrees of physical pleasure and pain as ourselves.—-We are forbidden to treat them unkindly on any pretence, or for any reason—Why should a man, for the sake of showing his skill as a marksman, shoot down a poor animal which he does not need for food? Why should not the brute, that is harming no living thing, be permitted to enjoy the happiness of its physical nature unmolested?”

Those who live more in the mind than in the heart can cause great harm to others—from vivisection and ecocide to terrorism and genocide—until they find ways to heal themselves. Treating others as objects classified and commoditized and as property creates separation and alien nations human and non-human. Objectivity and reason are complementary but objectivism is objectionable. It denies our common origins and kinship with sentient life which we sacrifice to need and greed, actions until recently unquestioned by society and even sanctified by religious beliefs. Other animals are regarded as inferior and “ours” to exploit as we wish, hold captive as property and kill as vermin or trophies. Enslaved by those enslaved and captive of their own beliefs, prejudices, fears and values, animals are even tortured to find the next cure and to test ever more lethal military and biological weapons of mass destruction. Arrogance and indifference can set us in a universe apart from others, and especially fear, all leading to objectification which make empathic, subjective communion, the I-Thou relationship of Martin Buber, inconceivable. As Chief Dan George famously said, “If you talk to the animals they will talk with you and you will know each other. If you do not talk to them you will not know them, and what you do not know you will fear. What one fears one destroys.”

No community or culture can remain viable for long with such an arrogant and indifferent mind-set based on the objectification and unbridled exploitation of life, on materialism, reductionism and moral codes and laws disconnected from bioethics and spiritual values, especially respect for the sanctity of all life and a sense of the sacred.

Some of the consequences of this adversarial, anti-life mind-set highlighted by deploying indiscriminately, antibiotics (anti-bios/anti-life) and pesticides, has been the evolution of resistant “super-bugs” and super-weeds and a host of human illnesses, many being incurable. The biocidal and suicidal consequences of a culture embracing such bioterrorism amount to Nature’s retributive justice and the nemesis of anthropocentrism.

Our collective anthropocentrism, ranging from uninhibited procreation to unbridled consumption regardless of consequences, we are now paying for as our increasingly dysfunctional biospheric ecosystem and its climate adversely impact communities, economies, agriculture and public health. So researchers are genetically engineering crops to be drought and saline resistant, to produce insecticides and resist herbicidal sprays which enter our food-chain, and are developing new ways to treat cancer and other diseases. New therapies include bone-marrow transplants, cancer vaccines and therapeutic antibodies. Veterinarians are at the helm of some of the companies pioneering these new treatments. While these advances may save lives and are highly profitable for the biomedical industry, they will not prevent illness and suffering. The costs of postponing effective bioremediation and outlawing hazardous pesticides and other agrichemicals and industrial pollutants that have had minimal, if any toxicity evaluation and which now contaminate our food, drinking water, the air we breathe and mothers’ milk and amniotic fluids will far outweigh the short-term, and very costly benefits of these new therapies. Furthermore, the greater the dissonance between the politics of public health and consumer protection and the practice of holistic, preventive medicine, the more dysfunctional the health care system becomes: Ivan Illich’s Medical Nemesis revisited!

Another major preventive health measure for companion animals, veterinary eugenics, has been long neglected. But it is at last gaining some traction as more diseases of hereditary origin and selection for extreme, abnormal physical traits are being recognized and correctives initiated from closing down high volume puppy and kitten breeding “mills” ( where there is no progeny testing) to changing breed standards to reduce the severity of selected abnormalities. Genetic screening rather than invasive gene editing is integral to effective preventive medicine for both human and animal lineages, along with nutrigenomics: appropriate nutrition.

Emotional trauma in children and other animals, especially during critical and sensitive periods in development, can have adverse physical, immunological, psychological—cognitive and affective—consequences throughout life, calling for intervention when identified. Prevention calls for optimal nurturing, both physical and emotional, and recognition of the epigenetic, generational consequences of neglect and mistreatment. The most primal emotion of fear, especially associated with physical pain, helplessness and abandonment, awakened early in life, can permanently wound man and beast alike.

Like true altruism, enlightened anthropocentrism discards those values, beliefs and aspirations that cause harm to the environment and other living beings. The ethical and empathic compass of compassionate respect for all life should be activated as soon as children reach the age of reason and ability to feel for others. Keeping animals as in-home family companions is ethically acceptable when their catalytic presence awakens such sensibilities which a visit to the local zoo or animal circus more often blunts, leading to desensitization and acceptance of keeping animals in captivity for our entertainment.

 Regular visits to a natural history museum, wildlife rehabilitation facility and structured time-out in the timeless presence of nature in protected and restored wildlife preserves can expand awareness and connectedness—antidotes to anthropocentrism and narcissism. Every child should also learn how other beings, plant and animal, contribute to health and beauty of the living Earth, and also how those whom they consume and wear were treated and what more humane and environmentally sustainable alternative choices they can make.

Having studied and treated many species of non-humans, wild and domesticated, I see my own kind as “unfinished”, in part because it continues to change as it changes its environment: Man adapting to man. Right relationships and right- mindedness go hand in hand, leading to mutually enhancing symbioses. Our collective wrong-mindedness now imperils civilizations and planet Earth. While the malleability of the human psyche facilitates adaptivity and creativity, its vulnerability can be its nemesis. With rare aberrant genetic exception, the psyche of every human infant has the chimeric quality of becoming more or less angelic or demonic, and all grades between good and evil. Our chimeric nature allows for objective discrimination/discernment and can facilitate cultural diversity and creativity, but also lead to conflict and division where there is no unified sensibility in accord with the Golden Rule. Ideologies can function like genes, (mnemes), possibly a uniquely human capacity, influencing behavior and perception and spreading like a virus through the culture. Teaching every child the virtue of adhering to the Golden Rule may be our specie’s best hope for the future when that moral principle extends to embrace all sentient beings, though may argue that this would not help arm them to face the real world where gold rules.

Natural, mutually enhancing (symbiotic) relationships are the foundation of functional and sustainable ecosystems and should be the template and praxis of any society and economy if they are ever to remain viable. These relationships are destroyed when natural ecosystems, —polycultures rich in biodiversity—are supplanted by the monocultures of industrialized agroforestry, commodity crop agriculture, plantations, aquaculture and farmed animal factories. The backlash (karma) of invasive weeds, insects and other pests, predators and diseases from these fragmented natural ecosystems mean ever more pesticides and other poisons and even genetic engineering being applied in the “war against nature and wildlife”.

Indeed, the last wave of global industrialism and its commoditization of the living Earth has all but exterminated indigenous cultures, tribes, habitats and species. So I retire in mourning but embrace the hope that this looming planetary apocalypse will awaken the light of understanding and redeem our species through concerted planetary CPR—-conservation, preservation and restoration. This is the template of sustainable, ecologically sound and humane organic agriculture. There is Natural Law, the basic principles of which any educated ecologist and observant naturalist can articulate. These principles every traditional, sustainable society sought to live by, understanding the consequences—nature’s retributive justice; eco-karma.

Public attitudes are changing as consumers seek organically certified food and products from humanely raised animals. Society questions various forms of animal exploitation and very soon we may no longer see or permit performing elephants and other wild species in circuses and orcas and dolphins in marine aquariums. But without concerted international support we may never see these and other endangered species ever again in the wild. The veterinary profession can do much to facilitate species’ conservation but needs to question the ownership and marketing of “exotic” pets and its pharmaceutical industry backed support of the non-sustainable, habitat-destroying and climate-changing livestock industry, especially its inhumane and disease-promoting concentrated animal feeding operations or animal factories.

When we still the mind and open our hearts to feel for the Earth and all who dwell therein, we experience the suffering of all sentient beings under our collectively inhumane dominion. Their plight awaits our compassionate intervention in the name of loving kindness and justice. All beings have personhood, individualized sentience, a will to live and degrees of sapience which, in some sensory and cognitive as well as physical realms, often far surpass our own. When our hearts are open we also experience the miracles of life that are our primal source of joy, inspiration, communion, devotion and wisdom. When we care for the Earth we care for ourselves. When other animals are part of such a community of care and concern, we will be closer to enjoying a humane and sustainable society with respect and justice for all.

Michael W. Fox, BVetMed, PhD, DSc, MRCVS, is an Honor Roll member of the American Veterinary Medical Association, writes the internationally syndicated newspaper column Animal Doctor. His website is  Several of his books explore these issues in depth, such as Bringing Life to Ethics; Global Bioethics for a Humane Society, SUNY Press, Albany NY 2001; The Boundless Circle: Caring for Creatures & Creation. Quest Books, Wheaton IL 1996 and Animals & Nature First, CreatSpace Books/, 2011.




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