Live animal surgery in vet schools: The controversy
There’s been a lot of flak lately over the comments of a veterinary student at Oklahoma State’s vet school.
Allegedly, the student passed along faulty information to one of the school’s heftier donors, pertaining to the use of live animals in the surgery curriculum at the school, leading her to rescind her offer for sizable financial support.
According to would-be donor Madeleine Pickens, she reported being told that, "maybe [they] take out a kidney, maybe break a leg, fix it, and then they kill them." She says the student-informer claimed that the animals are repeatedly re-awakened and recovered to undergo more procedures for the benefit of the student body’s knowledge base.
The Dean of OSU’s vet school spoke out sharply against these allegations, as did many prominent alumni, noting that the only organs removed for any student surgery are the reproductive ones, and that no animals are re-awakened after undergoing any other procedure. Emphatically, he states that the comment about broken bones and removed kidneys "is totally and unequivocally false."
A local lawmaker and OSU veterinary school grad also had this to say:
"As a proud graduate of OSU's vet school, I can say the claims about the school's teaching methods are unfounded and colored by the perceptions of individuals promoting a radical animal-rights agenda instead of sound teaching methods for veterinarian training."
A veterinary student chimed in with this:
"Our students are, as a whole, independent thinkers who have put a lot of thought into their personal ethical codes and have not made their decisions in support of live-animal surgery lightly. The student who spoke with Mrs. Pickens has an ideological belief that is in the extreme minority at the college … I have yet to speak to a single [other] student who does not feel that the OSU live-animal surgery procedures are humane, reasonable and a necessary part of our education."
No matter what veterinarians, deans, students, and veterinarian-lawmakers may say, it’s clear that the use of live animals for surgical training is fraught with significant ethical issues. After all, we would never use live humans as surgical tools for medical students. The fact that many of these animals are slated for euthanasia or would otherwise have to lean on the taxpayers for spays and neuters means that veterinary students get a pass that would never be granted to medical students on the human side.
Nonetheless, it’s argued that students need to learn somehow. Better on these animals in a controlled setting than out in the real world with paying clients and unsuspecting pet owners attached. And yet, that’s exactly how human doctors learn.
Yes, like it or not, human docs and their patients suffer through inexperience in human-life-on-the-line situations every day. We’d rather not think about it, but it’s inevitable. Dr. Atul Gawande is one of my favorite proponents of the view that training doctors is a lot like making sausage: everyone eats it but no one wants to see it being made –– nor do they care to know what goes into it. Because mistakes will be made and inexperience kills. No doubt there.
At issue, then, is whether the use of live animals in these controlled vet school environments is truly better for all animals. Does the fact that we have access to these living resources (given the teeming populations of "unwanted," soon-to-be-euthanized animals out there) give us a leg up on becoming better doctors?
I tend to think so. Though I firmly draw the line at learning from purpose-bred animals (those raised for the express purpose as learning subjects), and while in school chose not to participate in any surgical coursework that ended in euthanasia –– for shelter pets or any others –– I will argue that learning to spay and neuter live patients is an invaluable part of our current training.
As long as veterinary students treat these animals with the same respect we would any other patient –– and we do, if my experience is any guide –– and as long as the supply of needy pets continues unabated, I see nothing wrong with this "gift" to veterinary medicine and animals everywhere.
So let OSU’s donor keep her millions –– or give them to PETA, for all I care –– as long as nothing untoward is happening there (and it doesn’t sound like it is), live animal surgery means more well-prepared, confident docs, not ones who have learned to kill for their own barbaric gain, as is alleged.
Dr. Patty Khuly