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Replacing Animals in Medical Education: Victories, Challenges, and the Struggle for Compassion
When Jennifer Dankle entered Des Moines University College of Osteopathic Medicine in 1997, she had no idea she was supposed to cut open live dogs as part of her training. Then she walked past a school laboratory one day and heard the animals barking. Other students told her the dogs were kept in small cages for two weeks after undergoing painful nipple dissections—to see how their wounds healed—before they were experimented on again and then killed.

Dankle—who had objected to dissecting frogs and other animals in high school and college—refused to participate in the dog laboratory. Instead, she organized fellow students who knew that experimenting on animals wasn’t going to help them become better doctors. They launched a multi-year campaign to convince the school to replace the lab with a humane alternative. Eventually, the administration agreed. And Dr. Dankle went on to become a successful cardiologist.

"I was mortified when I discovered that my medical school was using live dogs to teach surgical skills.  I knew the lab was worthless. PCRM gave me the research and information I neeeded to make my case to the administraion.

Do No Harm?

Dr. Dankle’s experience is not an isolated case. Other PCRM members have opposed what they felt were cruel and unnecessary live animal labs. Some found it relatively easy to opt out of the labs. Others dropped out of school rather than participate in an animal’s pain and suffering. 

pippinStill others suffered emotional distress after participating in the labs—whether they were pressured into taking the class or simply had no idea how disturbing it would be to see a live animal used in that way.

John Pippin, M.D., F.A.C.C., PCRM’s senior medical and research adviser, was one of those students. While taking part in a dog lab at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in the late 1970s, Dr. Pippin saw a dog who was tied to the table, hooked up to tubes, and covered with incisions, begin to wake up. “He obviously hadn’t had sufficient anesthesia,” says Dr. Pippin. “At that moment, the façade that this poor animal was an inanimate object was stripped away.”

Jaymie Shanker, M.D., a PCRM member in Shaker Heights, Ohio, will never forget her live animal lab experience either. She was studying at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine in Cleveland. After refusing to participate in a cardiac physiology class that used animals, she was down the hall watching a computer simulation PCRM had provided as an alternative when some of her fellow medical students started trickling in.

“Some were dazed and others were crying from the trauma of seeing animals killed like that,” Dr. Shanker remembers. “They couldn’t learn what they were supposed to because it seemed like their pet was on the table. Instead, we all gathered around the computer and watched the video together. It was a better learning experience.”

Campaign Heats Up with Whistleblower Ad, Protests

Fortunately, the tide is turning. More than 90 percent of all U.S. medical schools have stopped using live animals to teach basic courses, thanks to innovations in medical simulation technology, increased awareness of ethical concerns, and a growing acknowledgement that medical training must be human-focused. Now, students use human-based alternatives, such as lifelike human simulators, faculty-mentored teaching opportunities, and computer-based learning methods.

James CromwellDespite this great progress, 10 U.S. medical schools still cling to the irrelevant animal labs. This winter, PCRM pulled out all the stops in its campaign to persuade these last few schools to modernize their teaching methods.

In January, PCRM filed a Petition for Enforcement with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, arguing that the schools—by refusing to implement alternatives—are violating the federal Animal Welfare Act. Also in January, actor James Cromwell, who played Farmer Hoggett in the movie Babe, wrote to all of the schools using pigs, explaining how sensitive and smart the animals are and calling on administrators to stop the labs. His letter attracted the attention of the press, helping to educate more of the public about the controversy.

Ads, billboards, banners, and peaceful protests at medical schools in Portland, Ore., and Milwaukee drew even more media attention. On February 15, the first day of a hotly debated pig lab at the Oregon Health and Science University School of Medicine, Dr. Pippin was on hand to let students know about a new hotline (1-888-6-TIP-USDA) available for them to report any problems they may observe during the laboratory, including incidents of animals regaining consciousness during painful procedures. An ad ran in the local paper asking students to “blow the whistle on animal abuse at Oregon Health and Science University School of Medicine.” 

Jaymie Shanker, M.D.Dr. Pippin and other PCRM staffers were also at the first day of the pig lab at the Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee. After tremendous public outcry about the school’s previous use of dogs, the administration switched to pigs, a species school officials apparently thought would cause less concern. PCRM and dozens of local activists with the Wisconsin Humane Society proved them wrong at a peaceful demonstration on February 18.

Students and staff at Johns Hopkins University, the only top-20-ranked U.S. medical school to use live animals in its medical student curriculum, are also starting to recognize the turning tide. An editorial in the February 14 edition of The Johns Hopkins News-Letter proposed that “there seems to be at least one point on which both the defenders of animal welfare and reasonable medical practitioners can agree: Live animals should not be used for purely educational purposes.” The editorial concluded by calling on the school to abandon the live pig labs “immediately.”

Compassion 101

Ole Ersson, M.D.PCRM has played a pivotal role in many of the campaigns to end live animal laboratories around the country, providing experts, information, and other resources. But without the compassion of local students, alumni, and the public, nothing would change.

Ole Ersson, M.D., a family practice doctor in Portland, is helping with PCRM’s campaign to end the live pig labs at Oregon Health and Science University School of Medicine. An alumnus of the school, Dr. Ersson is uniquely qualified to speak out against the school’s lab. As a student in the 1990s, he opted out of a dog lab offered in his first-year physiology class. “I didn’t think it was right to take an animal’s life unnecessarily,” Dr. Ersson recalls. “I had gone to medical school to help people, not to hurt animals. Opting out of the lab in no way hampered my education.”

Dr. Ersson has helped to educate the Portland community about the cruelty of the pig lab through his well-argued op-eds, letters to the editor, and media interviews.

Activism can take many forms. For Rooshin Dalal, it meant spearheading a major campaign several years ago to end the dog lab at the University of Virginia School of Medicine in Charlottesville. Dalal had discovered that the school offered a workshop during the surgery clerkship that resulted in the deaths of nearly 100 dogs each year.

Rooshin Dalal“Many students are uncomfortable with the idea of sacrificing animals in such a manner. Some of my classmates decided to just grin and bear it, believing the lab to be a ‘rite of passage,’” Dalal remembers. “Other students ran out of the lab in tears, unable to bear the sight of anesthetized beagles prepared for vivisection.”

Dalal got busy researching alternatives and making presentations to the school’s curriculum committee. A community group formed to help eliminate the dog labs, and a cover story in The Daily Progress increased public support. Eventually, the school decided it could no longer justify using animals.

This year, Dalal had the pleasure of attending the revamped animal-free workshop, which now lets students learn lifesaving techniques on a high-tech human patient simulator. “No one seems to remember that an animal lab ever existed at our school,” he says.


Good Medicine: Replacing Animals in Medical Education

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