Oklahoma State loss of $5 million pledge gives rise to animal use debate

Strong opinions frame multi-faceted, evolving issue

March 26, 2009 (published)
By Jennifer Fiala

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.

Reasons 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 medicine.

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espousing the need for live-tissue handling and a number of educators who support alternatives to what they consider an outdated and inhumane system, on the other.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.

Yet 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.

In 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 measure.”

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 suffering is.”

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 traditionally trained.

“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.

Rumors exist that some Class B dealers use illegal and illegitimate means to obtain animals, but OSU officials have no evidence of this.

Dr. 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.

“Twelve 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 surgical rotation.”

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.

There 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.”

Lorenz 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 a scalpel.

“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.

“Old 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.”

Not at 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 and emergencies.

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 unassisted.

“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.”

Rowan concurs: “Studies show that at least initially, it’s better to have depth of experience than breadth of experience,” he says.

VIN News Service commentaries are opinion pieces presenting insights, personal experiences and/or perspectives on topical issues by members of the veterinary community. To submit a commentary for consideration, email news@vin.com.

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