“We need to take action before imposed change comes at us – that was the strongest message we kept repeating and repeating.”
with files from AFAC and Meristem
Fifteen years ago a group of livestock and poultry organizations made some tentative steps to establishing an animal welfare organization that reflected the voice of commercial animal agriculture in Alberta. Little did they realize what that organization, the Alberta Farm Animal Care Association (AFAC), would look like all those years later.
In some cases 15 years is considered relatively modest. However for arguably one of the first industry-led livestock care organizations in Canada and internationally, 15 years has seen a world of change in the profile of the issue and the expectations surrounding it.
Perhaps the two most influential people who nurtured and guided AFAC were Susan Church, the first and only manager, and Dr. Ray Fenton, the long-time Alberta Agriculture representative on the board of directors.
Church reflected on the beginnings and on the 15 years of AFAC progress in a wrap-up presentation at the recent Livestock Care Conference in Red Deer. In her remarks Church asked, “Why did we start? We knew consumers were concerned about animal care. We knew the animal rights groups were there and they were shifting the perceptions of what was going on. We always said this: We need to take action before imposed change comes at us – that was the strongest message we kept repeating and repeating.”
It was not an easy beginning. Funding was always a problem, they began with a government grant and some industry funding that allowed for about one day a week of the new manager’s time. Church’s determination and relentless enthusiasm for the cause saw the organization spread its influence and activities into such areas as handling practices, transportation, research and education.
“I think one of the greatest things that we’ve done as an organization is that we’ve looked at what our challenges are and we’ve set out to try and improve them, says Church. “We haven’t hidden from them, and we still have to keep working on them. We’re not there yet.”
In her closing comments Church said, “It’s our job to continue to ensure that animal welfare continues to evolve with our industry. We have a great strategic plan in place, forward-thinking producers who have driven a new generation of livestock management, and we are in a better position than ever to capitalize on a market aware of animal care.”
KEEPING HEADS OUT OF THE SAND
At the same event Dr. Ray Fenton was presented with the AFAC Award of Distinction for his lifetime of leadership in animal welfare in Alberta. Dr. Fenton, a veterinarian from High River, was one of the founding fathers of AFAC.
Commenting on his contribution Church said, “Ray warned against a head-in-the-sand approach. He was ahead of his time and wise in his understanding of how the industry needed to continually take charge of improving animal care.”
In 1990, Fenton became head of the Alberta Agriculture Animal Health Management Branch and the Livestock Market Inspection program, which included assuming animal welfare responsibilities. He has been directly involved in the development of national Recommended Codes of Practice for the Care and Handling of farm animals – representing the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association on the review committee for the beef code and chairing the development of the sheep code.
Fenton remained on the AFAC board, representing Alberta Agriculture until he retired from the department in 2001. “Ray himself has noted that it was a trust-building exercise getting commodity groups to agree to have an outside group to provide a lead role on an interest common to all the groups in terms of animal welfare,” says Church. “But we are here 15 years later to attest to success of that venture.”
Fenton also lead the formation of protocols for the AFAC Animal Care ALERT line and was the linchpin in establishing the Alberta Livestock Protection System (ALPS) – a communication framework and dialog amongst animal protection enforcement agencies and the industry, through AFAC. In 2003, Fenton became the first Canadian on-call animal care veterinarian for the livestock industry. He has since assisted hundreds of producers and thousands of head of livestock through difficult times with what colleagues have described as his quiet, easy going, yet persistent demeanor.
Fenton has long championed farm animal care progress as a leader in numerous organizations and as a speaker at countless industry meetings. In his presentations titled “The Nervous Nineties,” he predicted that food safety, animal welfare and the environment would be major issues of the future.