Oklahoma State loss of $5 million pledge gives rise to animal use debate
Strong opinions frame multi-faceted, evolving issue
March 26, 2009 (published)
A $5 million gift pulled last month from Oklahoma State
University’s veterinary medical program shined a spotlight on the use
of terminal surgeries for academic training and has since exposed
factions of veterinarians at odds on the controversial issue.
behind philanthropist Madeleine Pickens’ decision to revoke her pledge
to the veterinary college — initially spelled out by university
newspaper, the Daily O’Collegian — are “grossly untrue,” OSU officials
say. Yet negative press circulating allegations that OSU academicians
break dogs’ bones and endorse repeat survival surgeries in the name of
training not only have spurred public outcry, the charges apparently
originated within the program’s ranks, from a student of veterinary
That inside leak, regardless of whether or not the
claims are factual, has done more than publicly challenge veterinary
medicine’s surgical training protocols, which traditionally include
terminal procedures on otherwise healthy animals. It shakes the
foundation of conventional introductory surgical training by exposing a
growing divide among academicians, with traditionalists on one side,
espousing the need for live-tissue handling and a number of educators
who support alternatives to what they consider an outdated and inhumane
system, on the other.
Officially, OSU’s surgical training model
for third-year students involves using dogs obtained from Class B
brokers — dealers that, in some circles, carry a negative reputation.
The animals are spayed and neutered, recovered with proper pain
medications and are again anesthetized for a second, terminal
procedure. It’s a system that raises students’ surgical acumen by
allowing them to ligate blood vessels, identify healthy, normal anatomy
and practice other baseline surgical skills, supporters contend.
those who view sacrificing animals as an unfortunate but essential
element to training veterinarians and are willing to publicly speak
about it are rare. The VIN News Service contacted several teaching
hospital surgeons who either did not respond or ducked interview
questions. The topic appears so controversial, one surgeon familiar with the OSU program initially
relayed his belief that live-animal surgery is a crucial teaching
element but later asked not to be mentioned. That’s after he conveyed
frustration that critics, including Daily O’Collegian reporters, know
“very little” about what’s involved in developing such training
programs and likened the topic’s contentious nature to “discussing
religion with an atheist.”
The Daily O’Collegian reports,
picked up by mainstream media, have veterinary college Dean Michael Lorenz on the
defensive. While he doubts that the unidentified informant really
lodged such complaints, stating emphatically “I know that student,” he
points a finger to animal activism that puts pressure on U.S. learning
institutions, and at the same time, paints a twisted picture of the way
veterinary programs use animals.
In a letter to university
constituents, Lorenz explains that the donation from Pickens, wife of
billionaire oil tycoon William T. Pickens, was not formally earmarked
for the veterinary college. And, more importantly, OSU’s animal facilities abide
by strict guidelines and policies that are reviewed by the
Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee, United States Department
of Agriculture, industrial partners and the American Veterinary Medical
Association’s accreditation arm, the Council on Education.
“I think people will recognize the article for what it is — a bunch of lies,” Dr. Lorenz says in a VIN News Service interview.
OSU’s corner is the American Veterinary Medical Association, which
backs the use of animals for research, testing and education and OSU
veterinary students who consider such training valuable and necessary.
Last week, about 15 students from the OSU Center for Veterinary Health
Sciences met with the O’Collegian editorial board to defend their
school’s practices, a newspaper report says.
Yet for every
supporter, there is a detractor, argues Dr. Gary Block, internal
medicine specialist and co-owner of a 27-doctor referral and emergency
clinic in East Greenwich, R.I. It’s an issue Block’s passionate about,
considering he helped organize several of his Cornell University
classmates to lobby for an alternative surgery course in 1990, during
his junior year.
“We found researchers on campus doing live
animal research and asked them to use the animals slated for euthanasia
in our surgery labs. We ended up doing very similar, if not identical,
surgeries to the students traditionally trained,” he explains. “Back
then, it was a tough sell. A lot of faculty felt like if we weren’t
comfortable killing dogs, we shouldn’t be veterinarians. A number of
schools have since changed their training methods, and I now think OSU
is in the minority on this.”
Whether or not that’s true cannot
easily be answered because surgical training within the nation’s 28
veterinary medical institutions appear to be idiosyncratic programs
with wide variations. While many have incorporated simulators or
cadavers into training labs, most still offer some type of live-tissue
preparation, yet what’s involved can encompass everything from shelter
work to survival procedures (although multiple survival surgeries are
now banned by the federal Animal Welfare Act).
“Back in 1978
when I started, CSU was doing eight surgeries, the ninth one terminal,”
recalls Bernard Rollin, PhD, a distinguished professor of animal
sciences, philosophy and biomedical ethics at Colorado State University
(CSU). “The surgeons hated doing it. It was being done as an economic
Soon after, the program changed to allow for only a
single survival surgery, with students graded on aftercare. “There’s
not a lot of wake-up surgery anymore,” Rollin says. “That’s where the
In 1994, Tufts University’s Cummings School of
Veterinary Medicine became the nation’s first program to forgo all
live-tissue surgery labs in favor of what’s loosely called alternative
training methods, and in recent years, a number of papers and studies
have been published supporting that decision, following students to see
how they’ve performed post graduation. The overall assessment: Students
retain the same knowledge and learn the same techniques as those
“The argument that this is a necessary
evil by vet schools is not borne out by the evidence,” Block says,
adding: “It’s always struck me as odd that as junior students we’d be
trained to fix a femoral fracture or do a surgery that these days would
be referred to a specialist anyway.”
While some baseline
surgical skills are better taught without animals, others are not,
supporters of live-animal training say. Furthermore, without
live-tissue experience, new graduates essentially are practicing on
clients’ pets, which some consider a violation of the Veterinarian's
Oath, critics say.
As far as the animals’ Class B status is
concerned, the issue comes down to finances, OSU officials say. Class A
dealers provide animals specifically bred for the classroom, but costs
run as high as $1,200 per dog. Class B dealers charge $100 per animal,
and pick up animals that are slated for euthanasia at shelters.
exist that some Class B dealers use illegal and illegitimate means to
obtain animals, but OSU officials have no evidence of this.
Andrew Rowan, chief executive officer of Humane Society International
insists OSU “should be ashamed” of using Class B dealers “that get dogs
from anywhere.” For 15 years, the former academician held various
titles including assistant dean and full professor at Tufts before
chairing the Department of Environmental Studies during the time when
the veterinary program dropped terminal procedures.
students petitioned for an alternative,” he recalls. “Things went back
and forth before the dean said, ‘This is something we need to do’ and
compromised. The students had to do cadaver surgeries and instead of a
two-week rotation in their fourth year, they had to do a six-week
Few students initially signed up, Rowan
says. But as the program grew, the school gained access to a stray cat
population, and student interest in that led to a major re-evaluation
of the program. What’s resulted is the following model: The school
develops a relationship with a local shelter and the shelter treats the
veterinary school as the doctor, allowing students to perform surgeries
with supervision. The animals are sterilized and returned.
are always initial glitches, Rowan admits. A sick dog once ran up a
fairly extensive bill, and there were questions associated with
payment. “But once you get things like that worked out, you’ve now got
a routine process where the animals are brought to the school by the
shelter,” he says.
OSU Dean Lorenz admits efforts are underway
to expand the college’s shelter medicine program into the surgical
laboratory as an alternative to terminal procedures. The relationship
would provide students with surgical and anesthesia training attained
by sterilizing animals. But there are financial roadblocks to the plan:
Officials estimate that it would cost at least $350,000 more to hire
faculty to monitor the students as well as the patients.
“If we had the resources to do it, that’s the way we would go,” Lorenz says. “These kids would take a lot of supervision.”
also questions whether or not students would gain skills on par with
those traditionally trained. Others who share his opinion cite a
reluctance to put animals in the care of someone who’s never picked up
“I’m personally not comfortable with taking animals
from a shelter that are going to be returned to the shelter and putting
them with someone who’s never picked up a scalpel,” he says. “I don’t
think that’s consistent with my oath as a veterinarian.”
Rowan confirms that such resistance likely hinges on financial and fear factors.
habits die hard,” he says. “Some schools take the traditional approach
because you don’t have to deal with clients; the touchy feely stuff is
no problem because at the end of the day the animals are euthanized,
and that’s it. It’s done for the convenience of the faculty; it’s clean
and cheap. But the dogs get the short end of the stick.”
Mississippi State University (MSU), where Dr. Phillip Bushby can barely
contain his excitement about the veterinary college’s new surgical
instruction model, built with the intent to develop skills around spays
and neuters on shelter animals.
With a $900,000 grant from the
Humane Society of the Unites States, Bushby has developed a program
where veterinary medical students start surgical training in their
second year by making a skin incision and watching a faculty member
perform a spay or neuter. The student then closes the skin
incision. The second-year student then progresses to performing the
entire spay or neuter on his or her own.
By year three, in a
clinical rotation called Community Veterinary Services, students each
make two trips to any of nine different animal shelters, where they
average about 16 spays and neuters each. What follows is an elective
shelter medicine rotation. This is a two-week rotation that runs 46
weeks of the year and can take two students per rotation. So 46
students in each senior class participate and make a minimum of six
trips to shelters in a mobile veterinary clinic, where they'll average
50 to 60 surgeries each.
“Next week we’re going to a small town
where an elderly lady has 40 cats,” Bushby says, “and when we leave
they’ll all be spayed and vaccinated.”
Bushby stresses that
students, not faculty, scrub in and perform the procedures.
Arrangements are made with local veterinarians to handle post-op issues
Terminal surgeries are not a required part of
the curriculum. And when the HSUS funding is exhausted, MSU is
committed to continuing it.
“I can’t say this as an absolute,
but I think we have the most experienced students in the country,”
Bushby says. “I’m a board-certified surgeon who’s taught surgery for 31
years, and I’m absolutely convinced that students can develop all of
the necessary surgical skills, tissue handling, hemostasis and
attention to aseptic techniques on spays and neuters. It’s nothing to
go from 50 spays to doing gastronomies, or whatever. I can take a
student who’s never done a cystotomy and with them reading and
reviewing surgical procedure and anatomy, have them perform it
“Most of us learn how to drive a car by driving one
particular car. But we can translate that to driving a pickup truck or
minivan,” he adds. “Why? Because all the basic skills are there.”
concurs: “Studies show that at least initially, it’s better to have
depth of experience than breadth of experience,” he says.
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