Personal Reflections on Veterinary Science Training and the Three Rs

Rosemary Elliott

Students against the thoughtless use of animals
in veterinary education need  support
to be true to their values, to use
science to uphold them, and to never
give up on advocating for the
highest standards of animal welfare

This opinion piece is something I needed to write personally, and it shocks me to notice the ten years that have passed since I enrolled as a mature-age student in veterinary science. It was a privilege to have this opportunity, and I am grateful that I can now advocate for animals in a way I never could have done before, particularly through my work with Sentient. By the time I enrolled in veterinary science, the faculty where I studied had made huge advances in the ethical use of animals in teaching, most notably through the banning of ‘terminal surgeries’. Since my time as a student, things have improved even more, and the faculty is leading the way in developing a national curriculum for animal welfare and ethics in veterinary teaching. Yet, despite this, some attitudes and practices ‘die hard’, and many of my experiences could only be described as vicarious trauma — hence the passing of so much time before I felt ready to give life to them with words.

Although the animals I speak of were used primarily for educational purposes, I do hope that those of you working in the laboratory setting with research animals, will find that my reflections will stimulate your own thinking and resonate with some of your experiences. We have much in common in our struggle to do our work and to do the best we can by the animals in our care.

Anatomy classes

Admittedly, I grew up with an idealised view of veterinary practice, starting with Dr Doolittle as a very small child, then moving on to All Creatures Great and Small and the other James Herriot books. Although 60 years had passed since the setting of those stories, with the onset of intensive farming, I went on assuming it was primarily about supportive teamwork and above all, empathy for animals.

The first wake-up call came in the form of Anatomy 1A. The laboratory, a huge room with grimacing dead greyhounds lying on metal trays, became a hothouse of anxieties, sometimes played out by the larking about that involved the throwing of body parts. The smell of formalin was so powerful that I can still conjure it up. In groups of three or four, we learned anatomy the traditional way, which some of us described as “being thrown a dead dog and a textbook”. There was minimal instruction, so we were left to hack away in the pursuit of identifying a lengthy page of anatomical features, ‘all examinable’, with the pressure to clean up before our class ended.

I don’t remember being told why they were always greyhounds, or how they were sourced. There was certainly no time for debriefing, and we learned early on that it was unacceptable to appear emotional. I soon became desensitised to this horrible scene until the 4th year, when I was initiated into surgical training on freshly-killed pound dogs of various breeds — soft and floppy and somehow, not being greyhounds, they seemed more individual, more like pets. I remember struggling with sad moments of wondering about their lives and whether they had been loved, and feeling ashamed of my tacit acceptance of greyhounds as production animals.

Now, this raises for me the question of respect for life, even after a life is over. If we are serious about honouring the dignity of animals and safeguarding their welfare, veterinary training must provide as many opportunities as possible for effective learning that reduces the number of animals used, such as initial skills training through videos and silicone simulator anatomical models. At Sentient, we also call for the veterinary profession to supply cadavers from ethical sources, rather than colluding with the widespread disposal of racing greyhounds by ‘convenience euthanasia’.

Practical animal husbandry training

Chickens and eggs
The Animal Husbandry practical classes on production animals were another shock. I expected state-of-the-art facilities for the animals, but the picnic atmosphere was killed for me by the sight of housing systems more typical of factory farming. The laying hens were all kept in battery cages, rows of little prisons with no natural lighting. Questioning this was frowned upon — we were there to show our enthusiasm and tick the boxes for the mastery of required skills. I was told these were working farms, the message to first year students from some staff members being that animal welfare is, by default, secondary to industry profit.

One of my saddest memories was being tested on my ability to remove a hen from a battery cage, restrain and examine her, then to return her to the cage, head first. She flapped with gusto and resisted going back inside. I felt I had performed an act of cruelty, giving her a tiny taste of what her body could do, but perhaps never would again. Then there was the class where chicks were deliberately infected with coccidiosis, so that we could observe the characteristic droppings. And the class on egg production, where the tutor smilingly broke fertilised eggs — to prove what, I don’t understand anymore — but leaving me with the image of an embryonic bird with a throbbing heartbeat, destined for the sink.

Compassion for birds was a disadvantage in veterinary training, where speciesism was very much alive and well. Most student complaints about animal treatment focused on mammals. In the 4th year, we were taught to euthanase chickens humanely, but were given needles of the wrong gauge, which caused their wing veins to blow. I felt murderous at the sight of students who laughingly persisted, while the ‘spent’ hens blinked helplessly as they were repeatedly traumatised by needles that failed to bring an end to their joyless lives. The demonstrator did not intervene. I learned nothing useful from this class — because after observing the other students, I decided not to even try. When I complained, the response was that they had run out of the correct-sized needles and would replace them at the next class, as if the problem had been purely a practical one.

This class could have formed a foundation for trainee veterinarians in the careful preparation and respect for birds during euthanasia. Instead, it reinforced the view of chickens as somehow less sentient, due to their status as production animals. We must consider how invoking the Three Rs would have helped here. Perhaps by the initial replacement of live birds by video footage of how to correctly perform euthanasia? But when it came to the use of live birds, which was essential, what was needed was a commitment by staff to the humane treatment of animals, and an expectation that students would demonstrate this attitude through their own behaviour. Instead, the atmosphere was cavalier and callous, and not at all conducive to any form of refinement.

Tail-biting management classes
The university’s pig farm was another indictment, with sows in sow stalls, and non-breeding pigs in dark little pens where we practised catching them with snares. This was the scene of my own most shameful memory, where, despite my opposition to unnecessary invasive procedures, I performed teeth-cutting, tail-docking and ear-notching on a piglet. I remember feeling terrified at the thought of this practical class, because of the expectation to ‘do as farmers do’ — which was ostensibly to improve the welfare of the piglets by preventing tail biting. I was unaware of any conscientious objection policy at that stage of my training. So I stalled for time, trying to look useful without actually doing anything, until the tutor presented me with my own piglet and a pair of what looked like pliers. He was clearly annoyed by my questions and my need for reassurance about avoiding the ear vein or how to create the least degree of trauma — a ridiculous question, in view of the fact that there was no analgesia.

I will always remember holding this warm, pink little being with the racing heart, who I just wanted to protect, but instead, I brutalised him. I try to cope with this memory by knowing that I worked as quickly as I could, and then rubbed his body all over to distract him from the pain, as I carried him back to his mother and made sure he found a teat to suckle on. I also try to cope by using this as the basis for my commitment from that day onwards to never again perform such an atrocity. But I will never forget standing there, praying the pain would soon end. I will never forget being inconsolable for days. I still cry at the memory of what I did. I betrayed my own values out of fear of failure and not being confident enough to stand up to pressure, aided by false reassurances that I was doing the right thing.

That night, I researched teeth cutting, and found a recent article in a veterinary journal that documented how the procedure predisposes to injury and infection in the mouth and gums. I have since visited free-range pig farms, where the ‘cannibalism’ we were indoctrinated with was not an issue. All these pigs kept their tails, and their baby teeth. I had been fed a lie, pressured into performing unnecessary and inhumane procedures on a piglet that would never be allowed on a puppy. And I was an educated adult, who had already considered these welfare issues and was not relying on this to earn a living.

My pathetic attempt at reduction, by limiting my actions to one piglet, did nothing to safeguard the welfare of that individual. Like so much of what we were expected to do in veterinary training, it simply should not have been allowed, because the procedure itself was unethical. In such cases, I believe we can be guided by the Three Rs to give priority to replacement, by showing students a video of these procedures, not least so that they know what to expect on farm visits. This can go hand-in-hand with advice about how these practices can be avoided through less-intensive husbandry practices. When invasive procedures are required, the focus should then be on initial video or simulator learning, to reduce the number of animals used, followed by refinement — i.e. teaching students to always use anaesthesia and/or analgesia to minimise stress and suffering.

Other lessons
There were multiple instances, where students at the university farm were expected to perform unnecessary invasive procedures on production animals as part of their learning experience, with routine farming practices cited as the ‘gold standard’. My question was always this: Why are we following the ways of the farmers, rather than offering something more as potential veterinarians? But most students, particularly those from rural backgrounds, accepted the status quo, citing the need for ‘real-world’ practice. It was also regarded as essential preparation for extramural farm placements, which brought further horrors that I will not elaborate on here. Common sights during my training were cattle being dehorned without analgesia, in some instances leading to maggot-infested wounds; the repeated attempts to lasso a terrified cow on a hot summer’s day, which led to her jumping a fence and almost breaking her hip; exsanguination of a sheep to prove the procedure is humane; and tail-docking and castration of lambs, who were pinned down on their backs in a ‘cradle’, all without analgesia, while students delayed the procedure by joking about who would remove which testicle.

Promotion of the Three Rs and alternatives
My reason for writing this, apart from my own need to debrief and reflect, is to think about the context that must be created, if the Three Rs are to be of use in veterinary education. Adherence to the Three Rs will only come about within a culture of empathy and respect for animals, which should also be extended to students. Offering a transparent conscientious objection policy, and reinforcing in every unit of study that there are alternatives to ethically-contentious procedures, is a crucial part of this. The way I coped was to find like-minded students, involve myself in the student-run animal welfare association, use the conscientious objection policy and formal avenues within the faculty to lodge complaints, and seek the support of staff members. And I will always be grateful to several academics, who were wonderful role models on how to uphold ethics in teaching, who had witnessed and objected to far worse in their own veterinary education, and who encouraged me and my fellow students to be true to our values, to use science to uphold them, and to never give up on advocating for the highest standards of animal welfare.

E-mail: rosemary.elliott@sentient.org.au

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *