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November 11, 2010

In Memory of Dr. Dean Wyatt: A Courageous Voice Against Cruelty

Most of us have had the fortunate experience of meeting individuals, at one point or another in our lives, who demonstrated integrity and commitment of the highest order. For those of us at The HSUS who had the privilege of working with him, Dr. Dean Wyatt was such a person. He worked for nearly two decades as a federal veterinarian assigned to oversee slaughter practices in the meat industry and to uphold the standards of the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act. He conducted that work with remarkable distinction.

Dr. Dean Wyatt
Dr. Wyatt courageously called attention to inhumane practices.

I could barely believe it when I heard of his tragic death this past weekend. Based on your responses to an earlier blog about Dr. Wyatt, whose tip led us to investigate the Bushway veal slaughter plant in Vermont, I know many of you will also be terribly saddened to learn this solemn and terribly sobering news. If you would like to, feel free to leave a comment here with your thoughts, and I will share your condolences with Dean's family.

Just a few weeks ago, Dr. Wyatt was diagnosed with brain cancer in an advanced stage of development. I am thankful that Dr. Wyatt could spend the last weeks of his life in the company of his family in Minnesota, because his last several years at the USDA were filled with strife, stress, and anxiety from superiors who were antagonistic and vindictive toward him.

Dr. Wyatt called himself a “country boy.” He was humble and unassuming but, when it came to doing his job to protect animals from inhumane treatment at slaughter plants, he stepped outside his comfort zone and took actions to halt cruelty, often resulting in recriminations and blow-backs for him from his USDA supervisors and district managers.

“I have a public duty to enforce the law,” he often told us at The HSUS when discussing his responsibilities under the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act. One of the beautiful things about Dean was his earnest simplicity and sense of duty. At a March 2010 congressional hearing examining USDA oversight of the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act, he said:

People have asked me why I would risk ruining my career by testifying. I would respond by quoting Abraham Lincoln who said “to sin by silence, when one must protest, makes cowards of men.” I am not a coward…and I will not be silent. I truly believe that the USDA inspector is the only advocate animals have in slaughter plants. When we turn our backs on the helpless, when we fail to speak on behalf of the voiceless, when we tolerate animal abuse and suffering, then the moral compass of a just and compassionate society is gone.

Dean did not bend or buckle when the meat industry pushed back and tried to thwart his effort to enforce federal humane slaughter standards. Because of his diligence and commitment to the rule of law, Dean made many in his own agency feel uncomfortable, but only because they had become too cozy with industry and had strayed so far from their purpose. The USDA should carefully regulate the industry, rather than coddle it and make excuses for its corner-cutting and cruelty.

Dean first called The HSUS almost three years ago to voice concerns about inhumane practices and food safety concerns at Seaboard, an enormous slaughter plant in western Oklahoma. He told me some chilling things, and I for one will never forget his contribution to improving the treatment of animals sent to slaughter. He was often gracious enough to thank us for working with him but he was the especially courageous one—the one who had a lot to lose—and it is we who are in his debt.

Today, the HSUS family mourns the passing of an esteemed and principled civil servant and a true humanitarian. He will be missed.

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