When Gail C. Golab was studying biomedical research in graduate school at Texas A&M University, well before she planned to become a veterinarian, she happened to live in a neighborhood popular with vet students.
Other students knew that future vets lived there. So when they no longer could care for their pets, the students often dumped them at the housing complex.
Golab and the veterinary students tried to take care of the strays. They bought food, tried to find new homes for the animals and held meetings to talk about the problem. But Golab quickly realized their efforts were likely to fail.
“No one was trying to figure out why students were getting rid of the animals,” Golab, Ph.D., DVM, MACVSc (Animal Welfare), recalls now, more than 20 years later. “And it seemed to me that if we didn’t figure out the source of the problem, we wouldn’t ever be able to solve it.”
First, she helped found a student chapter of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, figuring that educating students on the costs and challenges of pets might keep them from adopting an animal they couldn’t keep.
Then she went to work on the bigger picture. Realizing that the dumping problem wasn’t unique and was one issue of many affecting the well-being of animals, she decided the best way to make an impact was to study veterinary science. Now, as director of the Animal Welfare Division of the American Veterinary Medical Assn. since 2007, Dr. Golab works daily on the issue she’s been passionate about for more than 20 years: improving the lot of animals by addressing the roots of the problems.
“The (veterinary) profession has always worried about animal well-being, but it was just something they did without having a big label on it,” says Golab, 50. “But that has changed as animal welfare in general has become more visible. My division was created to try to bring some order to the discussion… Veterinarians touch animals, we touch people, but our work is science-based. No one is better positioned than we are to make a difference in animals’ lives.”
Golab works as something of a mediator, striving to make sure all voices on an issue are heard so that reasonable, useful solutions to problems can be found.
After graduating from the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine in 1991, Golab worked briefly in private practice before joining the AVMA in 1996. Over the years she was editor with the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Assn. and the American Journal of Veterinary Research and in the AVMA’s research/education and communications departments.
No matter her title, she often worked on animal welfare issues or those concerning the human-animal bond. When the chance came to join the newly created Animal Welfare Division in 2006, Golab was perfectly placed.
“Gail sees the big picture,” says Joy Mench, Ph.D., director of the Center for Animal Welfare at the University of California, Davis, who has worked with Golab on farm animal and laboratory animal welfare issues.
“It’s very important for the AVMA to take a larger role on this issue and Gail is the perfect person to do it. She’s very diplomatic, she’s open-minded, she’s able to talk to everybody and she’s got a good sense of humor.”
Animal welfare issues are often complicated and controversial. Opposing sides—researchers, animal-rights activists, those in the animal-production industry, pet owners—may hold what seem to be insurmountable differences of opinion.
“A lot of my job is getting everybody to the table,” Golab says, “getting people to understand that you can talk to people without always having to agree with them.
“If you look at those who are influential in this field, they’re the ones who are able to have those hard conversations. The ones who cross their arms and glare will not be there when you have the final discussions and make the final decisions.”
The best decisions are made only when all sides express their concerns, she says. Take animal housing.
From the standpoint of animal activists, kennels with wire flooring are unacceptable, Golab says. The wire floors are uncomfortable, even painful. But they serve a useful purpose in separating feces from the animal. A reasonable solution for dog breeders might be to provide cages with some wire flooring and some solid flooring, she says.
As in most cases, she says, no one side has all the answers.
“You have to be able to look at every piece of it and not be swayed just by emotion or decide just on the basis of science,” Golab says.
Certified in Australia
Golab serves on numerous committees, helping develop guidelines, protocol and procedures for caring for farm animals, companion animals and everything in between. In 2008, seeking additional expertise, Golab earned her credential in the Australian College of Veterinary Scientists’ (ACVSc) animal welfare chapter, traveling there for the exam’s oral portion.
She is the only U.S. veterinarian to earn this credential, says Dr. Mark Lawrie, president of the Australian Veterinary Assn., who served as her mentor. Australia is the only country to offer the designation.
Getting the certification “was a good way for me to make sure I had the breadth of knowledge, across species, to deal intelligently with the issues,” Golab says. “This doesn’t make me an expert in poultry, for example, but I know enough about those issues to be able to approach them.”
Her study also exposed her to the global picture. Though the U.S. sometimes is perceived as lagging behind other Western countries on animal welfare, Golab says the issue is complicated.
“Just the sheer size of our animal-use operations is so different. Our numbers are so massive compared to most other countries’, so the way we manage animals is going to be different,” she says. “And, philosophically, we come from different places. In (some countries), there’s more familiarity with natural lifestyles; here, we’re more comfortable with technology. It doesn’t necessarily mean either way is the wrong way.”
Spoken like an expert at getting all those opposing sides to the table.
This article first appeared in the December 2009 issue of Veterinary Practice News