Attending the Minding Animals Conference in New Delhi was an incredibly enriching experience to say the least. Hosted by the Wildlife Trust of India, it was held at the Jawaharlal Nehru University campus where the most affectionate (well-fed) stray dogs and a few nonchalant peacocks roamed the extensive grounds, the gala dinners were brimming with cultural performances and tasty Indian cuisine, and altogether it included six packed days, each consisting of six concurrent sessions spanning hundreds of presentations concerning animal protection and critical animal studies. Amongst these were invited presentations and keynote speeches by international figures in the animal welfare field, and a final dinner presentation by Mr Ace Bourke, who famously raised “Christian the Lion” (http://www.alioncalledchristian.com.au) and shared this bond with the fascinated world. Later, becoming a strong supporter of wildlife conservation, one of the focal themes during the conference. Being able to initiate conversations with like-minded vets, scholars, conservationists and animal advocates bearing decades of wisdom - during each conference meal and social gathering - was as enjoyable as it was educational. And it was rewarding to be able to treat some of the mange-infected campus dogs, and to follow up on their recovery post-conference. The final cultural dinner saw many of us dancing with abandon to the incredible Punjabi music, colourful performers, and disco lights.
My presentation in the ‘Animals & Education’ session was entitled ‘Speciesism and Ethical Considerations Regarding Animal Use in Veterinary Education’. It entailed a critical discussion of the veterinary curriculum and the use of animals as learning tools within it; oftentimes, such use disregards the availability or potential for humane alternatives (e.g. ethically sourced cadavers) and/or
efficacious innovative technologies. I described how speciesism is implicit and explicit in the degree, facilitated by the “roles” we assign different species, such as those exploited for sporting entertainment e.g. racing greyhounds that become dispensable cadavers. In particular, the agricultural leanings of the vet degree that favour economic attributes of “production” animals serves to promote speciesism and desensitise students to ethically-questionable industry procedures (e.g. routine farm husbandry procedures sans pain relief). I also shared my own experiences of conscientiously objecting during my vet degree. Finally, I dedicated a couple of minutes to introduce Sentient’s work, to demonstrate our role as a veterinary driven body promoting humane treatment of all animals, with the goal of furthering the animal protection movement as well as providing moral and educational support for students. I was touched by the positive audience feedback from several veterinary professors and others who identified with my discussion; the need to improve ethical reasoning skills in vet students is apparently a global issue. Not to mention, improving their interest in, rather than opposition to, topical animal welfare issues.
Each day, a wealth of fascinating topics were presented, though a shared frustration amongst attendees was the inability to be in several sessions at once! It was a pleasure to be the moderator for the session on ‘Animals & Culture’; Dr Ramesh Kumar Perumal (Donkey Sanctuary’s veterinarian) detailed how their organisation has shown that providing compassion for, education and assistance to the impoverished brick kiln community has led to them cultivating compassion towards their own working donkeys (which typically sustain severe wounds, either through neglect or intentional abuse), thereby vastly improving their welfare. Dr Jessica Walker’s presentation on her research into ‘Behavioural Responses of Dogs and Cats to the Loss of a Companion Animal’ elicited significant interest (as expected at a conference of animal-lovers), and Ms Kelsi Nagy’s research examining contemporary cattle welfare in India was timely; many are aware of the ‘sacred’ status of cows in India. Yet, they continually suffer abuse in various forms - a sentiment echoed by Union Minister Maneka Gandhi who spoke passionately on the hidden practice of rounding up cattle roaming the streets, to be illegally slaughtered. Another welfare issue frequently raised were the kilos of plastic bags and other rubbish, including glass, accumulated in the majority of stray cows’ stomachs, due to rifling through the garbage lining the streets to obtain food. I was fortunate to visit the Karuna Society’s cattle sanctuary after the conference, where they perform surgeries to remove this rubbish, and created ‘The Plastic Cow’ documentary to convey this particular issue. Many thanks to the amazing organisers of the conference - in particular, Dr Rod Bennison, Mr Kim Stallwood, and Dr Vivek Menon – for this experience. I’m certainly looking forward to the next Minding Animals Conference in a few years time!