Concerns Over Animal Use in Teaching Spark National Attention,
by Chris Beuoy
After a great deal of discussion within the College last semester about
terminal laboratories in first-year physiology, the debate went public
with a front-page story in the Chicago Tribune on January 4, 2000.
At issue were the limited educational options for students with ethical
objections to the terminal laboratories. Of the 100 students in the first-year
veterinary class, 26 gave advance notice in November that they would not
participate in the spring semester physiology laboratories — demonstrations
of cardiovascular and respiratory functions that would require a total
of 40 dogs. About an equal number of pigs were used in non-survival physiology
laboratories in the fall, as well as a smaller number of rats and rabbits
throughout the course.
At the same time, a small group of students pressed for a written policy
on the obligations of faculty and students in regard to conscientious objections
to animal use in the teaching program. The students noted that the College’s
facto position allowed students to forgo the laboratories but did not
require faculty members to provide another learning experience for those
Student objections to terminal laboratories are not new. For many years
some had chosen quietly to bypass the laboratory experience. Toward the
end of last year, however, the issue rose to the surface.
• An open forum was held to discuss the educational value of the laboratories,
with students and faculty expressing a variety of views.
• The Courses and Curriculum Committee, composed of six faculty and
four student members, drafted for faculty comment a statement, for inclusion
in recruitment materials, on animal use in the curriculum. This was the
first step in developing a formal College policy on animal use in teaching.
• At the request of the student affairs office, an independent campus
unit conducted an anonymous survey of all veterinary students to gather
opinions about the laboratories.
• Eight students who advocate teaching methods that do not involve
terminal animal use compiled a document listing hundreds of existing educational
materials that cover the physiology learning
objectives and asked the physiology faculty to determine whether any
would be appropriate as alternatives to the terminal laboratories.
When the faculty and administration neither endorsed these materials
nor moved to find other alternatives, the students brought the situation
to the media.
Public Reaction, College Response
With the headline “Vet Students Oppose U of I Animal Killings,” the
Tribune story generated attention in print and broadcast media throughout
the state. The Web site of the animal rights group People for the Ethical
Treatment of Animals (PETA) posted a request for its followers to send
the College messages in support of the student conscientious objectors.
Hundreds of email communications and letters poured in.
Meanwhile, Dean Ted Valli, meeting with other veterinary deans at an
early January veterinary conference in Florida, learned that, of the 31
North American veterinary colleges, only two others used terminal laboratories
to teach first-year physiology.
Although the students had not asked for the terminal laboratories to
be halted, the dean decided to suspend their use in light of the practice
at other colleges and the intense scrutiny by University administration
and the public.
In a January 14 memorandum to the College, he noted that animal use
protocol stipulates “the personnel conducting procedures on the animals
being maintained or studied are appropriately qualified and trained in
these procedures.” The dean’s memo stated that this condition “cannot reasonably
be assured in the case of the labs where students are asked to carry out
physiologic preparations in the early days of their first year of instruction.”
A new level of College oversight of animal use in the teaching program
was added. The Courses and Curriculum Committee was charged by the University’s
Laboratory Animal Care Advisory Committee to review existing as well as
any new animal use protocols in the teaching program to ensure that animals
are used appropriately across the four-year program. (Previously, animal
use protocols were approved only by LACAC.)
The dean also created a policy of using only purpose-bred dogs purchased
from Class A dealers for the teaching program. This measure addressed concerns
that the dogs used could have been family companions accidentally or inappropriately
Support for the Laboratories
A second front-page Chicago Tribune story detailing these changes ran
January 18, just as students were returning from break. Many students were
unhappy with the decision to suspend the laboratories, noting that a majority
of first-year students expected to do them. The American Physiology Society,
which supports the use of terminal animal laboratories, asked its members
to protest the dean’s decision, and hundreds more messages were sent.
New waves of media coverage—much of it misrepresenting the facts in
trying to reduce a complex issue to a headline or sound bite—converged
on the College. The issue was mentioned in USA Today. It was featured in
the Chronicle of Higher Education. A call-in radio show on WGN addressed
the topic, inviting as guests the dean, two veterinary students, and College
alumni and Chicago practitioners Drs. Shelly Rubin and Gene Mueller.
Some members of the public—and even some students—criticized the cancellation
of the physiology laboratories on the grounds that eliminating this “hands-on”
animal experience would diminish students’ clinical skills as practitioners.
On February 2, tabulations of the student survey showed divided opinions
on the value of the physiology laboratories. Of the 295 students from all
four years who responded, a small majority reported that the experience
“somewhat” enhanced their understanding of physiology; the remaining students
were about equally divided between answering that the laboratories aided
their grasp of physiology “substantially” or “not at all.” Slightly more
than half (54%) felt that the “educational experience gained [was] worth
the resources used.”
gaining proficiency in surgical techniques using inanimate models, third-year
students like Elizabeth Norby are ready to perform survival spays and neuters
as their first surgeries.
Positive Steps Taken
On February 8, faculty approved a formal policy outlining expectations
for students and faculty in regard to animal use in the teaching program.
It states that the College will use live or dead animals to provide students
with essential skills and interactive learning experiences and that protocols
involving animals will be reviewed to ensure appropriateness within the
curriculum and humane treatment of the animals.
It goes on to state that instructors, when notified before the beginning
of the course, will provide alternative learning experiences for students
whose beliefs lead them to choose not to participate in instructional laboratories
that conclude with the death of animals.
The heightened awareness of ethical issues in veterinary medicine in
the past few months has led to another positive outcome for students: regardless
of their beliefs, students will be better prepared for ethical dilemmas
in practice by confronting them now. (See “Ethics”)
Implications for the Future
Professional ethics and teaching techniques are continually evolving.
Few would advocate returning to the days of teaching toxicology, for example,
by demonstrating the effects of strychnine on a live dog, once a routine
practice at veterinary schools.
Illinois has been a leader in developing alternatives to terminal animal
procedures in the small animal surgery and dentistry curriculum. Our College
was among the first to make survival spay/neuter surgeries, benefiting
animals from local humane societies, the surgery course’s standard, not
Campus administration has offered financial support for College faculty
who take advantage of the University’s outstanding resources in computing
and technology to develop simulations or other learning tools to replace
the terminal laboratories.
The College’s new policy on animal use allows faculty to incorporate
live animal demonstrations with committee approval, while making non-terminal
approaches available for students who choose them. This policy should encourage
exploration and comparison of various teaching approaches.
Combined with monitoring the success of our graduates and the expectations
of the practitioners who hire them, the policy ensures that the College
will continue to produce graduates with the essential skills and knowledge
needed to become competent, compassionate veterinarians.
Experience in the DVM Curriculum: Ensuring Clinical Competence
The limited amount of interaction with live animals
in the first two years of the veterinary program has been a point of student
dissatisfaction for years. Students who welcomed the first-year physiology
laboratories as a chance for hands-on experience were disappointed by their
Given that the purpose of the physiology laboratories
was to convey concepts of normal function, not to teach clinical skills,
and given that most other veterinary schools do not include similar laboratories,
it’s clear that eliminating them should not impact the clinical abilities
of our graduates.
The entire third and fourth years of the veterinary
curriculum are devoted to developing surgical and medical skills. In addition,
many volunteer opportunities are available to underclassmen for gaining
clinically relevant experience beyond experiences they arrange for summers
and semester breaks.
Community Practice Service: Assist Dr.
Kent Davis and fourth-year students with routine veterinary cases in the
Wildlife Medical Clinic: Work in medical
teams to provide care to the more than 1,500 injured or abandoned wild
animals brought to the WMC each year.
Champaign County Humane Society:
Assist with routine health care on weekends.
Foal Watch/Colic Watch/Emergency Service:
Spend time observing clinicians and helping in any of several specialty
areas of the hospital.
in Veterinary Ethics at Illinois
Are veterinary ethics evolving? How are those
ethics expressed in the veterinary curriculum? In what way, if any, should
public opinion affect veterinary education? How can veterinarians help
shape public opinion and take a stronger role in animal ethical issues?
The strong public reaction to the terminal physiology
laboratories has left many in the College struggling with questions like
these. Some within the profession wonder whether the non-veterinarians
who felt qualified to denounce the laboratories are equally concerned with
the fate of the millions of abandoned pets euthanatized each year or with
the conditions of animals used for their meat supply.
How can the profession best communicate with the
public to bring a balanced view of the role of animals in society? And
how can the profession ensure that its own practices are ethical?
Last fall Dr. Gerald Pijanowski, associate dean
for academic and student affairs, and second-year student Jay Thurgood
took a step toward confronting these issues when they attended the Veterinary
Bioethics Conference at Tuskegee University. Their trip yielded two results
that have particular significance given the recent debates in the College
over animal use in teaching.
Thurgood decided to start a new student organization
devoted to promoting professional development by sharing views on veterinary
ethics as well as animal ethics. Three dozen people attended the organizational
meeting of the Society for Animal
and Veterinary Ethics (SAVE) club to elect officers and adopt a mission
The club’s first official meeting, on February
15, addressed a topical issue on the Urbana campus: the poisoning of starlings
at the University’s dairy farm. Students researched the issues and presented
facts about the hazards starlings pose to the dairy operation, the safety
for other species of the poison used, the role of starlings in displacing
native bird species, and the impact of the poisonings on the student-run
Wildlife Medical Clinic.
Another outgrowth of the Tuskegee trip brings
to campus Dr. Bernard Rollins, an ethicist at Colorado State University
who has taught and published widely on veterinary and animal ethics. The
College and the Student Chapter of the American Veterinary Medical Association
jointly sponsored a March visit from Dr. Rollins.
Activities like these are increasing awareness
and better integrating ethical issues into the educational experience at