More than 100 people – veterinarians, breeders, lawyers and agricultural producers – from all four corners of the United States gathered earlier this month to consider the future of animals in America at the annual National Animal Interest Alliance conference, held this year in Redondo Beach, Calif.

NAIA Founder Patti Strand says the two-day conference, titled “Brave New World: Caring for Animals in an Age of Mass Media and Misinformation,” was a “huge success” because it brought together representatives of a variety of industries involved with animals, everyone from egg producers to ranchers to dog breeders.

Temple Grandin, Ph.D., a professor at Colorado State University, was the keynote speaker at the National Animal Interest Alliance annual conference in Redondo Beach, Calif., earlier this month. Photo courtesy of Colorado State University.

Keynote speaker Temple Grandin was “great,” Strand says. “Her message is a very positive one: ‘Clean it up and invite them in.’” Grandin told the gathering that if they have a facility that science proves is full of healthy animals, but the way the animals are raised looks bad to the public, they need to address that. “Perception is reality,” she said, adding that today’s world is full of cameras, so facilities need to be such that the public can’t be lured into thinking they’re not humane. Grandin is a designer of livestock handling facilities and a professor of animal science at Colorado State University. Diagnosed with autism at age 3, she is also known for her books on the subject, and is the co-author, with Catherine Johnson, of “Animals Make Us Human: Creating the Best Life for Animals” (Mariner Books, 2010, $15.95)

The first day of the conference focused on animals for human consumption and the dietary misinformation that dominates popular culture in the U.S., with day two dedicated to companion animals.

“We always have fabulous speakers,” Strand says, “but what made this year special was the way people came together to share their stories and expertise. There were opinion leaders from a variety of backgrounds. We had some of the top people involved with birds, fish, equine and animal agriculture, in addition to the dog and cat fanciers, AKC, UKC, Masters of Foxhounds and CFA [Cat Fanciers’ Association].”

Strand says the greatest threat to people and industries involved with animals today is the massive amount of misinformation out there that the public accepts as true. “Groups that do not share our values or expertise are driving the public discourse about animals today.” Despite the diversity of the various groups in attendance at the conference, they have at least one very important challenge in common: “to take back the conversation about animals.”

“NAIA’s role as an animal welfare organization is to support the people who live and work with animals – to support the human-animal bond. In order to do that effectively, we need to understand the issues; offer effective solutions; support organizations that improve animal health and welfare; and expose the fraudulent fundraising groups that exploit problems for their own purposes, not for the benefit of animals or their caretakers.”

To that end, conference attendees were briefed about a variety of topics related to pets and breeding.

Damages for Pet Injuries and Deaths

Phil Goldberg, J.D., a partner at Hardy & Bacon in Washington, D.C., spoke about the potential for the award of noneconomic damages in animal injury and death cases. He believes that should owners start collecting compensation for pain and suffering or emotional distress, it will, in the long run, deteriorate people’s ability to even own pets.

“As pet owners and animal lovers ourselves, we fully appreciate why it might appear to some that allowing owners to recover emo­tion-based damages is the ‘pro-animal position,’” he wrote in a commentary with Nancy Halpern, current chair of the Animal Law Committee of the New Jersey State Bar Association, in the September 17, 2012, New Jersey Law Journal. “Nothing could be further from the truth.”

Goldberg asserts that such damages will increase the cost of many aspects of owning a pet, in particular, pet products, veterinary care and pet services, because those losing such suits will pass those costs on to their clients and customers. “While some owners may win in court, overall, pets will lose,” Goldberg and Halpern write. “Pet eco­nomics is simple. At litigation-inflated prices, many owners will no longer be able to afford services and products their pets need. The quality of pets’ lives will be lowered, and in some cases, owners may be forced to eutha­nize their pets if they cannot or will not pay higher costs of care.”

The attorneys maintain that pets will get no benefit if their owners are able to collect noneconomic damages.

Research to Boost Dogs’ Quality of Life

Speaking on behalf of the American Kennel Club Canine Health Foundation, CEO Terry T. Warren, Ph.D., J.D., discussed the nonprofit’s progress since its founding in 1995. Supporting the CHF’s mission of “funding sound scientific research and supporting the dissemination of health information to prevent, treat and cure canine disease,” Warren outlined some of the research currently being funded in the areas of cancer, periodontal disease, urinary incontinence, pain management and canine compulsive disorder.

AKC Canine Health Foundation CEO Terry T. Warren, Ph.D., J.D., discussed current canine health studies being funded by the CHF, as well as other projects to which the nonprofit is contributing. Photograph courtesy of NAIA.

She also talked of the CHF Canine Athlete Initiative, which works with “key opinion leaders in the area of canine sports medicine” with a goal of advancing “high-quality biomedical research” focused on bone biology and disease; musculoskeletal biology and disease; osteoarthritis and pain management. Warren said the initiative is important because most of today’s dogs no longer “perform the duties they were originally bred for.” So, organizations and owners offer and participate in all kinds of canine sports to “provide mental stimulation and contribute to the overall well-being of our dogs. However, she said, “Dogs need proper nutrition and conditioning for the events we are using to replace natural behaviors. We need to know how to prevent injury and when necessary treat injury.

Two areas targeted for research in 2013 are “novel technologies” and “cutting-edge regenerative medicine techniques” for treating elbow dysplasia and supraspinatus tendinopathy, which is like a human rotator cuff injury.

Warren’s final subject was the CHF funding of studies on the search and rescue dogs that combed through debris after the attacks on September 11, 2001.The former research discovered that the “dogs fared much better than people working in the same conditions.” It also revealed information useful during an actual search effort, such as “how often working dogs must rest, and the need for eye flushes, proper training, hydration and monitoring to maintain [their] health.” CHF also contributes funding to the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, whose purpose is to improve search dog effectiveness through research and education.

USDA APHIS Animal Care

Kay Carter-Corker, D.V.M, assistant deputy administrator of the United States Department of Agriculture Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, presented information about the 200-plus-employee agency which has four offices around the country and regulates dealers, exhibitors, researchers and transporters of plants and certain animals.

Representing the USDA Animal and Plant Health Service was assistant deputy administrator, Kay Carter-Corker, D.V.M. Photo courtesy of NAIA.

APHIS animal regulations are based on the Animal Welfare Act, a part of which is currently being revised to address the selling of dogs via the Internet. APHIS received almost 500,000 individual comments, form letters and petition signatures about the proposed changes, according to Carter-Corker. The final rule is under development, she said.

Other parts of APHIS’ work include regulating the import of dogs and other animals from other countries and threats to animal health related to natural disasters and vector-borne health threats, such as the avian flu.

Raising Standards with the AKC Inspections Program

Addressing the American Kennel Club Inspections Program was Margaret Poindexter, J.D. She detailed the history of the program, founded in 1991. Its Care and Conditions of Dogs Policy was implemented in 1996 and enhanced just this year. Poindexter reported that the AKC spends $1.5 million annual on the program, making more than 55,000 inspections since 2000.

The objectives of the program are to “assist customers in identifying areas of deficiency; educate breeders about AKC expectations of care and conditions, dog identification and record keeping; and assist customers to come into compliance.” The Care and Conditions Dogs Policy is “meant as a basis for helping individuals ensure that facilities are maintained and care practices are performed in a safe, humane and responsible manner.” Some of the areas the guidelines address include structural soundness, adequate space and shelter, adequate ventilation and light source; cleanliness of facility, enclosure, food and water receptacles, and bedding; appropriate sanitation and disposal of feces; condition of dogs, including weight, absence of parasites, grooming, treatment of any medical conditions; access to daily exercise, socialization and play, and daily health assessment; emergency or disaster preparedness plans; adequate staffing to care for the number of dogs housed in the facility; and compliance with all applicable federal, state or local statutes, regulations or ordinances.

A First Time Inspection Program was launched in 2003 “in order to move the inspection program from one of a punitive nature to one based more on education,” according to Poindexter. It’s designed as a “learning experience” to intervene early to prevent non-compliance and to build a relationship between the AKC inspector and the new breeder.

A Canine Health Panel

A panel of health experts, moderated by NAIA President Marthina Greer, D.V.M., a specialist in pediatrics, reproduction and behavior, explored hot-button issues in the veterinary world.

Bloodhound expert Susan LaCroix Hamil, a registered veterinary technician, AKC judge and a member of the AKC CHF Board of Directors, has written for numerous dog publications. She spoke on the benefits of genetic – phenotype and genotype – screening and the use of limited gene pools in endangered breeds.

John Hamil, D.V.M, and Susan LaCroix Hamil served on a panel of canine health experts at the annual conference. Photograph courtesy of NAIA.

John Hamil, D.V.M., had his own veterinary practice from 1977 until just recently when he sold it to an associate, though he still practices two days a week. Hamil spoke about overpopulation, and how California’s AB 1634 will “fail to solve the euthanasia numbers because animal relinquishment is not a problem of too many dogs and cats, but one of too few responsible owners.” He also posed the question of why tubal ligations for bitches and vasectomies for dogs are not offered as options in jurisdictions considering mandatory spay-neuter laws. Reiterating the danger of animal owners becoming “guardians,” he said that “the cost of malpractice insurance and veterinary care would skyrocket” should that happen. Hamil explored the concept of standard of care, broached in much proposed legislation, saying that it is truly a “moving target,” that changes regularly.

Veterinarian Sharon Vanderlip’s practice is devoted exclusively to reproductive medicine and surgery, including methods for improving animal health and fertility, and eliminating genetic disorders. One of her topics looked at whether bitches and dogs with marginal fertility should be bred using assisted reproduction from two points of view: the fact that it often requires an elective procedure and that it may perpetuate genetics related to infertility. She also discussed debarking, bark-softening and urban barks and how those procedures differ from spaying or neutering. “We do both because we, as humans, want to control natural things that dogs do in our environments,” she said.

The Founder’s Take on It All

Strand, a Dalmatian breeder since 1969 and AKC board member from 1995 to 2011, took to the podium as well, describing her first exposure to the anti-dog, anti-dog breeder movement between 1989 and 1991 when San Mateo, Calif., experienced one of the first marketing campaigns against pet breeding. Legislation proposed by “Oregonians Against Puppy Mills” in 1991 “was drawn so broadly, it would have eliminated nearly all breeders, no matter how responsible or humane,” she says. The stated goal of one ordinance promoter was to “make the public think of breeding dogs and cats like drunk driving and smoking,” she recalls today.

That was all it took for Strand to decide a national animal welfare organization was needed to combat the animal rights legislative-marketing campaigns going on around the country.

National Animal Interest Alliance Founder Patti Strand addresses animal-raising experts, from egg producers to dog breeders, gathered at the organization’s annual conference. Photograph courtesy of NAIA.

“We provide a balanced, fact-based approach to animal welfare issues, clarifying complicated issues and countering misinformation, and support people and enterprises that work responsibly with animals,” she said.

The NAIA focuses on protecting the relationship between people and animals – supporting the human animal bond – and safeguarding and promoting responsible pet ownership in America.

Strand listed some of the challenges facing dog owners and breeders, including the loss of hands-on animal experience among the general public, the use of social media to spread anti-breeding messages and people hearing about dog problems such as puppy mills and dog attacks via media with little understanding of the issues.

She said it’s a “perfect storm” that threatens the “continued availability of healthy purebred dogs suitable for performing specific work and filling specific roles” and will lead to “increased government control of most aspects of dog breeding and pet ownership.”

Strand characterized animal-rights efforts as “conflict industry fundraising,” saying those groups “make no product, supply no service, identify and exploit problems to raise money.” She said they use a victim-villain-vindicator methodology, meaning that they make themselves look good by making someone else look bad, using “the First Amendment to defame people and industries at will, then solicit donations to fight the defamed targets.”

The real issue, she said, is the use of propaganda to foster negative perceptions of breeding that lead to legislation. “By the time we’re battling legislation, we have already lost the public relations war,” she said. “We’re in a propaganda war!”

“Your job and responsibility are to change the conversation!” she challenged. “Continue to breed good dogs and promote and publicize them. Tell the world what’s good about your dogs. Register every puppy at the time of sale. If you are a breeder who registers with AKC, promote AKC at every opportunity. Memorize everything good AKC does so you can spiel it off instantly. The public has no idea what AKC does. Make AKC your marketing partner.”

She listed eight easy ways to start a conversation, even with total strangers:

1. Develop a 30-second elevator speech for yourself.
2. Create an email tagline to deliver your message.
3. Start a blog or send comments or questions to blogs that support your values.
4. Sign up for online social networks.
5. Join NAIA’s “Consider the Source” campaign.
6. Sign up for NAIA Trust’s Capwiz lobby tool.
7. Write letters to the editor and call talk shows with the facts whenever misinformation appears.
8. Write supportive comments when positive articles appear.

“We’re working on solving problems and putting our communities back in the positive lights they deserve,” she said. “Be proud of who you are because you can be proud of who you are, then tell your story.”

The site and date of next year’s conference are still pending.