Zoo Ethics in the Veterinary School Curriculum: Teaching the Young Dogs Old Tricks
American Association of Zoo Veterinarians Conference 2012

Dalen W. Agnew1, DVM, DACVP; James G. Sikarskie2, DVM, DACZM; Sarah K. Abood2, DVM, PhD

1Department of Pathobiology and Diagnostic Investigation, College of Veterinary Medicine, Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI, USA; 2Department of Small Animal Clinical Sciences, College of Veterinary Medicine, Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI, USA


Ethics is arguably one of the most important and difficult disciplines to teach in a professional curriculum. It is likely that a student’s ethical mindset is primarily developed at an early age, long before the student enters college; yet new tools can be acquired and new information can be received throughout life. With this in mind, Michigan State University College of Veterinary Medicine has developed a course to expose veterinary students to ethical dilemmas they may face in professional practice and challenge them in an interactive environment with their peers and experienced faculty. One of the many areas of discourse covered is the trade-off encountered in zoo practice between individual animal welfare and the needs of an endangered population. In practice, this discussion often occurs in a very public forum, making decision-making even more difficult.

Multiple fictitious scenarios were devised for the students based on real experiences to simulate the kinds of choices that veterinarians must make at zoos, such as:

1.  The choice to take in a rescued American black bear from a humane society, thus displacing a breeding pair of spectacled bears.

2.  The choice of taking in a USFWS confiscation of 10,000 assorted reptiles and amphibians into a closed herpetologic collection.

3.  The choice of assisting local law enforcement as they confiscate declawed tigers from “crack houses” in an urban environment.

Students were then asked to assess:

1.  Who/what are the stakeholders in this dilemma?

2.  What are the possible choices of action?

3.  Who are the ‘losers’ and ‘winners’ of each choice?

4.  Can anything be done to mitigate the damage to the ‘losers’? Is this ethical?

5.  What would be your best professional recommendation to the zoo administration?

These discussions have value not only for veterinary students destined for a zoo medicine career, but for all veterinarians who often become leaders in their communities. In conclusion, this course has provided excellent opportunities to educate students about the complexities of zoo practice and the relevance of these issues to all citizens of the world.


The authors thank the clinical veterinarians who provided case study materials and the faculty who facilitated the many small group discussions involved in this course.


Speaker Information
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Dalen W. Agnew, DVM, PhD, DACVP
Diagnostic Center for Population and Animal Health
College of Veterinary Medicine
Michigan State University
Lansing, MI, USA

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