Dealing With Change: The Response of the Faculty of Veterinary Science, University of Sydney, to Conscientious Objection and Legal Restrictions to the Use of Live Animals
The Faculty of Veterinary Science, University of Sydney, accepted its first students in 1910. It subsequently developed into Australia's leading veterinary school, with a strong emphasis on live-animal teaching under the influence of some of Australia's most eminent veterinary anatomists and surgeons. The Faculty was proud of its reputation for teaching surgery, and the success of its graduates in Australia and overseas. University of Sydney graduates were considered to have sound clinical knowledge and confidence in routine surgical procedures and anaesthesia. The curriculum contained many hours of practical classes using crossbred dogs impounded by government authorities and unsuccessful racing greyhounds surrendered by their owners. Faculty staff considered their treatment of these animals to be humane and felt they were making the best of what would be an otherwise wasted resource; hundreds of thousands of unwanted animals that were destroyed annually. Students considered the use of live dogs in practical classes to be a right and a necessity. The benefits of using live dogs, namely practice in anaesthesia and surgery, were considered to far outweigh ethical concerns raised by some members of the public and animal activists.
In 1997, the Faculty faced a number of challenges to what it considered to be its excellent teaching program.
1. The State Government passed legislation making it illegal for pounds to provide live dogs for teaching or research.
2. A third year student expressed conscientious objection to using live dogs in practical classes, and dogs sourced specifically for the practical classes.
3. Members of the public expressed increasing concern about 'experimentation' by veterinary students and clinicians working in the Veterinary Teaching Hospitals.
The Department of Veterinary Clinical Sciences already had a policy for conscientious objection in place. This put the onus on the objector to discuss their objection (and reasons for objection) with the head of department, then to find like-minded students to work with in the practical classes. Such a group would be permitted to perform their classes on dogs after euthanasia, although some aspects of the anaesthesia practical class would have to be performed prior to euthanasia. This policy was clearly inadequate for a student who objected to using pound-sourced dogs in the first place, and previous litigation in Western Australia showed that the court considered it the responsibility of the institution to provide mechanisms for alternative methods of achieving objectives where feasible. Hence, the Departmental policy failed the first time it was tested.
In view of developments in 1997, the Faculty set up a working party to investigate the use of live animals for teaching small animal anatomy, surgery and anaesthesia. Whilst the Faculty was reacting to external pressures, the terms of reference of the working party were broad enough to permit a proactive approach to potential future issues. The working party included representatives from the academic and general staff, undergraduate student body, local welfare agencies, small animal practitioners and the Australian Veterinary Association. The working party received advice from overseas academics that had dealt with similar issues, students that had voiced conscientious objections, manufacturers of alternative training models and a variety of others.
There was intense debate within the veterinary profession as to the ramifications of no longer using live dogs for teaching, and reaction to the concept of conscientious objection by students. "Non-objecting" students and their potential employers were greatly concerned that graduates having reduced access to live animals would not possess adequate skills at graduation. There was debate about whether the Faculty could provide a registerable qualification in the absence of non-survival surgery and anaesthesia practical classes. For many veterinarians, students and staff, it was the first time that ethical debates had been widely discussed. Novel concepts of 'intrinsic value,' 'demeaning animals,' 'objects versus individuals,' the notion that using animals in practical classes desensitised students to animal suffering, and that ready access to pound-sourced dogs may lead to a conflict of interest whereby the veterinary profession did not take steps to reduce the number of unwanted animals, met with varying reactions.
Students who raised conscientious objections were considered misguided, and a small number of practitioners expressed reluctance to have the students in their practices. Other undergraduate students were angry that the opinion of a small minority might jeopardise their access to quality education.
The Faculty needed to respond to these issues on a variety of different levels. The working party approached the problem by firstly analysing exactly what the aims of the different practical classes were. Objectives, or learning outcomes, were developed for each unit of study. Learning outcomes that could be addressed equally well with cadavers or models versus live dogs, and those that could only be addressed using live animals, were identified. All members of the working party accepted the fact that, in order to learn, students would at some stage have to practice on live animals. By abolishing live animal practical classes in the undergraduate curriculum the Faculty would be placing responsibility for providing live animal experience on employers of new graduates. Hence, that aspect of teaching would shift from the undergraduate to the postgraduate level. Opponents of live-animal teaching, and non-veterinary members of the University administration, had alluded to an analogy with human medicine, where surgeons learn in hospitals on patients and non-survival animal surgery was not often performed. The idea of veterinary 'internships' after graduation but before unlimited registration, was discussed but seemed impractical due to the large number of students graduating each year, and the absence of a formal mechanism for setting up internship programs in private practice.
The working party concluded that the Faculty would somehow have to provide more opportunities for students to practice anaesthesia and surgery in live animals to compensate for the loss of non-survival practical classes. Students were able to observe and participate in procedures in the teaching hospitals, however there was a limit to what clinicians were prepared to let them do on clients' animals. As a result of the working party's conclusions, a program was set up with a local welfare agency whereby dogs were presented to the Faculty for desexing prior to being rehomed. The cost to the Faculty of speying a female dog as a student exercise was calculated at $180.00 AUD. It was decided that each student should have the opportunity to desex or anaesthetise 6 such animals, and there were approximately 100 students in each year, hence the cost of this exercise was estimated at $54,000 per annum. The University agreed to commit extra funds for this initiative.
Ethical issues such as student desensitisation, source of animals for practical classes and speciesism were discussed. The working party developed a policy on the use of animals for teaching including the concept that, ethically, one species could not be substituted for another. The argument that it might be more acceptable to use live pigs or sheep than live dogs was considered fundamentally flawed.
Modifications to the way the practical classes were conducted, including changing the order to enable body parts from dogs used in one prac to be available for subsequent practical classes, and thereby reduce the number of animals being used, were considered. A wide variety of non-animal substitutes for teaching surgery and anaesthesia were also considered.
The working party recommended that the Faculty respond sympathetically to students' objections, and allow students to devise ways of achieving practical class outcomes by alternative means; for instance, organising extra rotations at a welfare shelter and providing a detailed written report. It also recommended establishment of a donor system whereby owners could donate the bodies of their animals that had died or been euthanased as a result of disease.
Decisions as to where substitutes could or should be used were made according to whether objectives for the practical class could be adequately met.
Before instituting any of these changes, however, it was necessary to reassure students and the profession that the process of evaluating the teaching of anaesthesia and surgery, describing learning outcomes, and implementing some alternatives to non-survival practical classes were not necessarily going to reduce the quality of teaching. In contrast, there was a real chance that the learning experience could be improved.
Improvements that have been noted after 18 months of practical classes using cadavers or other resources include:
Ability of very inexperienced students to concentrate on simple manipulative procedures, rather than worrying about plane of anaesthesia, presence of bleeding.
Enabling nervous students to become comfortable with the concept of incising and suturing dead animals before having to deal with living tissue.
Ability to more closely supervise students during practical classes because extraneous problems such as anaesthetic emergencies or excessive bleeding do not divert the tutors' attention.
Better visualisation of some structures like the bladder and intestine without constant oozing of blood or swelling.
Necessity for better surgical technique to ensure a leak-proof seal in hollow organs when swelling and fibrin clot do not occur to assist wound closure.
Ability to give students who have completed the preliminary practical class series further experience with live animal surgery as a result of the spey/neuter program.
Impetus to discuss welfare issues with students.
Ability to concentrate teaching into a shorter period of time and therefore increase level of concentration of students and staff.
Ability to re-use cadavers or body parts for subsequent practical classes, thereby reducing overall animal usage.
More psychologically acceptable to staff and students who previously spent 4 days a week trying to save dogs and cats, and on the 5th day euthanasing more animals than they had saved.
Student surveys continue to identify surgery practical classes as a strength of the curriculum and most staff agree that students participating in the desexing clinic have as good a grasp of principles and practice of surgery and anaesthesia as they ever did.
This experience points to the need to carefully evaluate learning outcomes and to respond carefully to concerns of students and welfare groups.