Issue 12 / 2 April 2012

I cannot help but wonder how such a situation came to develop… If I had been told by a physician, no matter how senior, that infants don’t feel pain, I would never have believed it. What constitutes the difference between my reaction and that of the thousands of physicians who did believe it?Jill Lawson, 1988

JILL Lawson was one of the leaders of the parents’ campaign of the mid 1980s to shield infants from surgical pain.

In a letter published in the New England Journal of Medicine she questioned why doctors did not react as individuals to such an incomprehensible assertion.

The reasons why doctors traditionally take so long to question dogma are complex but we are known to be a rather conservative group of people. As late as 1974, experiments were still being conducted to ascertain whether infants felt pain.

We now know that animals are capable of emotion and feel pain. The hope is that the public in general and doctors specifically will acknowledge this fact and rid our society of animal cruelty.

The AMA requires our profession to uphold the values of altruism and compassion and to advocate for social justice. I believe we should reflect the prevailing social concern for animal protection by applying this commitment to humans and animals alike.

Anyone who has shared their life with a dog will know that animals are complex beings with the capacity for physical pain and mental distress.

Our scientific training gives us the evidence for this. We know that mammals and birds are sentient beings with the neurophysiological mechanisms for emotion.

This knowledge comes with an ethical responsibility. As scientists and advocates of social reform we should recognise that animal suffering matters and speak up when we see it occurring.

We cannot ignore the more than 500 million animals who suffer on factory farms each year in Australia. They are treated like machines on a production line with little regard for their welfare.

Most pregnant pigs are individually confined in cages so small they can’t even turn around, while up to 60 000 meat chickens are crammed into a single shed where distress and disease are rampant.

The medical profession has begun to protect animals used for scientific experimentation. Researchers and clinicians are required to alleviate pain and distress with anaesthesia, for example.

Yet there is a glaring contradiction in our tolerance of factory farming procedures. Infant animals are routinely mutilated without pain relief — the tails, teeth and testicles of piglets, the beaks of chicks, and the horns, tails and testicles of calves.

Whether you are a vegetarian or a meat eater like me, surely we can all agree that animals deserve some basic decencies — freedom from pain and distress, space to move freely and the ability to express their natural behaviours.

Doctors may not have direct responsibility for the injustices of modern agriculture but we do have the power to help overcome them. We hold a privileged role in society; we are trusted as scientific minds and reliable carers.

Our communities will listen when we explain the illness and suffering that lies hidden behind the closed doors of factory farms.

I have done this in recent years by supporting the work of Voiceless, the animal protection institute, along with Nobel Laureate J M Coetzee, former Justice of the High Court Michael Kirby, and former Secretary to the Treasury Ken Henry. Without a dreadlock or angry placard in sight, we are speaking up for animals with reason and compassion. And we are being heard.

More Australians than ever before are considering where their food comes from and the truth is compelling them to make ethical choices in the supermarket. Food producers are responding to this consumer demand with more humane practices and animals do have hope for a better life.

We can help make this happen and we ought to do so. Let’s extend our compassion beyond the hospital.

Associate Professor Charlie Teo is the director of the Centre for Minimally Invasive Neurosurgery at the Prince of Wales Private Hospital and founder of the Cure for Life Foundation. He is a member of the Voiceless Council.

Posted 2 April 2012

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6 thoughts on “Charlie Teo: Let’s extend our compassion

  1. Anonymous says:

    Leave it to the vets. It is their business, and they are doing a good job.

  2. Yvonne says:

    On the issue of factory farming, I would encourage everyone to read “Eating Animals” by Jonathan Safran Foer. He exposes not only the incredible cruelty that goes on in factory farming, but also the effects that it has on human health e.g. the widespread feeding of quinolone antibiotics to factory farmed animals in the USA (does it happen here and in other countried as well as well?), which has rapidly resulted in the development of resistant bacteria. This was despite the CDC pleading with the farming lobby and the US government not to allow the use of these important antibiotics in agriculture.
    Another issue explored is the contamination of chicken with many pathogenic organisms during processes used to increase their weight (soaking in contaminated water), and thus their price.
    I have not eaten chicken since reading this book, and am eating as many vegetarian meals as I can. We do not need to eat as much meat as we do.
    As you can see, it is not only an animal cruelty issue, but a human health issue.
    I urge all of you to read this book.

  3. Diarmuid McCoy says:

    The belief that infants did not feel pain is a scandal. This was the result of poor education among doctors in one of the basic skills of medicine. A skill that is from time to time difficult. That is the management of pain (Acute Chronic or cancer.) Currently the veterinary students recieve about 4 times more education in pain and its management than medical students. Without minimising the cruelty inflicted on animals, if some of the effort in campaigning on this was devoted to the proper education of doctors on basic pain management it would go a long way to decreasing the current enourmous burden of pain.
    Dr D G L McCoy
    Specialist Pain Medicine Physician

  4. Linda says:

    While I was so happy to read Charlie’s piece on animal cruelty, I also reflected that it took a “radical” to speak the glaringly obvious to an educated and intelligent group of people. Charlie touches ever so superficially on the subject as I am sure that he is not fully aware as to the depth and breadth of distress and cruelty that routinely occurs to get his meat and milk into his kitchen.

    As a vegetarian since age 8yo (from witnessing farm practices in the country town I lived), my consciousness was raised even further when I recently moved to a dairy farm precinct. I am now almost vegan due to the utter horror of what I have seen.

    Peter Singer well describes speciesism which, like feminism, and racism, takes consciousness raising to fully understand. The many farmers I know state they love their animals and I truly believe they do. It is a culture that will unfortunately change too slowly for these good farming people and yes, I firmly believe doctors can help pave the way forward.

  5. Despina says:

    It is everybodys responsibility to address the issues related to the factory farming of animals. Some of us (including doctors) are in a unique position to educate and lead by example by sharing our knowledge and our compassion for all living beings. It is also becoming increasingly obvious that the health of humans is not far removed from the health of animals. Unfortunately vets are not doing a good job at all as there are very few veterinary assoications who openly advocate for the welfare of farm animals. In fact there are vets who have vested interests arising from their employment in industries (meat and dairy) that profit from factory farming including the appalling live export trade. I applaud Charlie Teo for speaking out and bringing this to the attention of those who have the potential to spread their compassion and act in a responsible manner that promotes the welfare of animals.

  6. Me says:

    Well said Despina. The same can be said for a persons vested interest in the use of animals in sport and breeding. WE are all responsible, but I definately agree that medical professionals, in this case Doctors take on a significant influencial role. The skills I have observed displayed by such persons, require much tact and thoughtfulness. This can be destroyed in seconds. I also equally applaud Charlie Teo for bringing this very ethical topic to the table. It is a big battle and one that I am sure every person faces when they choose to not ignore. The fact that one simply chooses to face the issue is a massive shift in consciousness and it is highly commendable even at my lowly and insignificant rung of the ladder.

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