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We certainly live in interesting times...

by
01 October 2014, at 1:00am

The Mercury Column, in which a guest columnist takes the temperature of the profession – and the world around.

IN a speech in Cape Town, South Africa, on 7th June, 1966, Robert F. Kennedy said: “There is a Chinese curse which says, ‘May he live in interesting times.’ Like it or not, we live in interesting times...”

Looking back, one wonders whether life has become any more straightforward since that confused and comparatively unworldly period and events during the last few weeks have done little to reassure us.

Our world is now, seemingly, suspended from the Cloud and the supply of information, together with the requirement to respond to it, is instantaneous.

Not only that but the distribution of that information, whether it be factual or propaganda, is now multi-faceted and under the control of individuals and not the establishment, as seen in the way in which terrorists distributed their brutal video of the execution of an American journalist. 

Wikipedia has, perhaps simply through squatters’ rights, become the default source of information for countless millions and the risk that an entry could be utterly fallacious is dealt with by a simple tiny disclaimer. Is it any wonder that people appear to be confused?

As I write this, the sad tale of the parents who removed their young son from hospital, in what seems to have been an attempt to get, what they believed to be, better care for him, is all over the news and the media have chosen to interpret their actions as being criminal.

Above the law

Some time ago, the rule of law was that one was innocent until proven otherwise but, as the News of the World trial has shown, the media considers itself to be anything other than subject to the law.

So, we have an interesting conundrum: is it illegal for parents to remove a minor from treatment within the NHS if the State considers that child to be at risk?

Again, in the past, the normal course of action would be to make the child a ward of court to exercise institutional control, but recent revelations have shown that some factions within the establishment have not been without cause for concern in their treatment of the elderly and the very young, children in care, children within the BBC, neglected patients and vulnerable young women under the supervision of both the police and the local authorities – the list goes on.

Is it right for the State to intervene when it has a poor track record to show for it and, if not, what recourse do the vulnerable have in extremis?

Such ethical debates will, no doubt, rumble on long after this particular case is forgotten by the media, and hence by most of us, but it is interesting for the boot to be on the other foot. 

So often, this profession is called upon to play God, as a dear colleague once expressed it, in deciding which animals can be offered for rescue and which cannot. So often, it is the veterinarian who needs to help the pet owner make the right decision for the animal and how many times has any veterinarian wanted to explain to owners that the very existence of clever and complex ways of extending a pet’s life isn’t in itself always a valid reason for doing so? 

Some things are clear cut and we can see a straightforward path forward; others are less so and, sometimes, the existence of a scientific reason for taking a course of action provides the persuasion needed to stick to our guns even if, deep down, we sense that it just might not be right.

relief to animals is a good example; for decades, veterinary students were taught that it wasn’t necessary even though a contrary argument was staring us in the face.

Are we open-minded?

Today, few people would argue that case as they would have done even 20 years ago and strict adherence to published science isn’t always the basis of keeping an open mind.

Most of us are very happy with the idea that there is both art and science involved in veterinary medicine but this harmonic is sometimes difficult to get across in a news bite, which might explain why the media doesn’t bother with such nuances.

If all that the public sees is a version of a news story without any attempt to provide context, or the nuances of interpretation that would enable them to form a balanced view, we can only expect that they will remain uninformed about many issues which are of importance to members of this profession as guardians of the ethos of animal welfare.

In all our opportunities for contact with the public, whether as registered clients or not, there is an opening for us to take some of the key issues and provide that background and context.

As the rampant commercialism of animal healthcare continues apace, we need to find different ways to remind the public of the skill, knowledge and inherent care in which this profession abounds and thus help them to define balanced and informed judgements. That background and context is simply not available elsewhere.