Using and Killing Animals in Labs and Shelters: Coping, Contradiction, and Conflict
The use and killing of dogs by medical students and shelter workers in the United States provides insight into the experience of veterinary students who sometimes face similar situations. Although ostensibly two very different kinds of settings, there are features of the medical school and animal shelter experiences that, when combined, likely approximate what veterinary students contend with when they face terminal surgeries or labs that use dogs.
Like veterinary education, medical education often includes the use and destruction of dogs as learning "tools." A major difference, however, is that medical students are seeking to improve the health and welfare of humans rather than animals. Over half of American medical schools use living dogs to illustrate basic physiology principles, after which the dogs are killed. Pressure has mounted in recent years for medical schools to discontinue the use of dogs as teaching tools. To date, approximately one third of all American medical schools have stopped using living dogs in this manner, and many of those schools still using them are contemplating their discontinuance.
The vast majority of medical students experience a disconnect when they confront "dog lab." The use of living animals, especially since some are former pets and most are in good physical condition, seems wasteful and unnecessary to many students, who nonetheless attend the lab because it is expected of them. Before entering the lab, many students are quite apprehensive about the possibility that dogs might suffer, although student concerns are rarely shared with others. They also are concerned that lab dogs might bear an unusual physical similarity to their former pets, making students anticipate additional stress during class. Medical students see faculty as supporting the use of dogs as educational tools and as largely unsympathetic to the distress they feel when facing this prospect. Nevertheless, in most cases they recount the experience in positive ways.
Like veterinary education, shelter work often causes distress because it requires people who care strongly for animals to do things to them that seem inconsistent with their values. Despite the growth of the "no-kill" movement in the USA, the majority of American shelters are "open-admission" facilities that euthanize millions of animals each year. Shelter workers see the ambiguous public as responsible for creating the need to euthanize, but as largely unsympathetic to the emotional burden placed on those who carry out this dirty work.
Many shelter workers find that euthanasia repudiates their identities; they are "animal lovers" put in the unenviable position of killing former pets that are often not sick enough for the staff to easily justify their death. This "killing-caring" paradox never completely makes sense to most workers, who learn to deal with it by acquiring a number of institutional coping devices that make the conflict somewhat easier to live with, including blaming the public, becoming competent at performing euthanasia, restricting their attachment to "safe" shelter mascots, and seeing suffering in animals, to name a few.
Veterinary students likely experience conflicts similar to those of medical students and shelter workers. Students may consider physiology lab and terminal surgery to be a "harmful use" of animals, and this definition in their eyes would trump educational definitions imposed by faculty and administrators. Having this alternative definition means that students likely experience conflict between their desire to help animals seen as companions and the requirement to objectify and kill them as part of their education.
Veterinary students probably experience this conflict at an intuitive and personal level, believing that veterinary schools send out the wrong message for how animals should be regarded and treated. They no doubt see faculty supporting the "harmful" use of animals as "tools" and do not identify with them or understand how they can be expected to do this. They probably feel that veterinary administrators and some faculty "just don't get it," especially if they blame student resistance on their squeamishness or sentimentality. Baffled by this, students may sense that the ability and adeptness of faculty to categorize teaching animals as objects is an intellectual game or institutional convenience that too easily robs the actual animal of its integrity, sensate nature, history of companionship, and spirit. It may be patently obvious to students that these dogs are more than objects, even if they do not have relationships and histories with the dogs used in their training. If so, students will see through the superficiality and contradiction of shifting between these human-created and self-serving statuses.
Supporting their intuitive sense that it is wrong to rely on these categories, students may see larger contradictions in veterinary school policy and practice. On the one hand, schools may be seen as profiting from and promoting the human-animal bond in general, encouraging students to be empathic and sensitive to clients' animals and to value individual animals. On the other hand, students are then expected to easily jump from categorizing animals as beloved, client pets to a different category where they are not concerned about or empathic toward animals just because they are in the status of lab animal or teaching tool. Practices such as doing "heroics" on clients' dogs when they are terminal may seem particularly contradictory to students and make it very difficult to draw the line between clients' animals and teaching tools.
In the end, veterinary students likely rely on some of the same coping skills used by medical students to get through unpleasant or objectionable "educational" experiences, but suffer some of the same uneasiness experienced by shelter personnel who feel a nagging sense of contradiction in their work.