Bioethics Biology Medicine Politics Science Surgery

Animals in research and medical training

Over the weekend, some readers sent me a link to a story that, presumably, they thought would be of interest to me, given that I graduated from the University Michigan Medical School back in the late 1980s. Specifically, it’s a report that U. of M. has halted the use of dogs in its surgical training:

Surgeons training at the University of Michigan Health System will no longer use live, healthy dogs to learn drastic surgical procedures that can save people’s lives, the university announced Thursday.

The anesthetized animals — obtained from shelters — were used to teach tracheotomies, how to fix collapsed lungs, and other emergency procedures. The animals’ injuries from the procedures forced them to be euthanized.

As anyone who’s read this blog since at least last July knows that I’m a dog lover. Anyone who has any doubt of that should simply go back and read my post about the premature death of our dog Echo last summer, and that should refute all doubts. In fact, it’s because I like dogs so much that I’ve always had a bit of difficulty using dogs in research. I realize that it is not entirely rational. Indeed, as a medical student I experienced a bit of the very training that has now, some 20 years later, come to an end.

The first time I ever dealt with the reality of dogs in medical research and training was when I was an undergraduate doing a summer research stint at at a lab in the Ann Arbor VA Hospital back in 1983. The animal lab was in the basement, and I sometimes had to go to that floor because some of the shared equipment that we sometimes needed to use was down there. I could frequently hear the barking from the animal facility on that floor. One day, I had to go downstairs for something or other. As I opened the door from the stairwell, I was greeted with the site of a dog running frantically towards me. The dog was a black and tan mutt, some sort of medium-sized mix, perhaps with a bit of terrier, and it was terrified, whining and running. I quickly shut the door behind me, and the dog continued running around the corner and down the hall, with two lab techs running behind it, ineffectively trying to corral it. If it hadn’t been for the palpable sense of fear emanating from the fleeing canine, I would have laughed out loud, because the incompetents pursuing it reminded me of, more than anything else, a Benny Hill sketch.

All I could think of was: That poor dog.

My next encounter occurred during my third year in medical school in the very program at U. of M. that is being terminated. Some of the students interested in a career in surgery were allowed to participate in the training exercise at the dog lab. I remember that it took place in a very old part of the medical school campus in what seemed to be the oldest laboratory I had ever seen, some place where Louis Pasteur might have worked, had he been an American and lived in Ann Arbor. The dogs had already been anesthetized and were laid out on operating tables, with endotracheal tubes in place and ventilators running. That means I did not see the frightened dogs being led into the room, having IVs inserted, and then being anesthetized. It was with some unease that I, along with several other students, practiced venous cutdowns, placing chest tubes, inserting central venous catheters, and suturing lacerations. When the session was over, we did not stick around to see the dogs euthanized, and for that I’m very glad. I also remember that all I could think about while working on the dogs was that these were probably once someone’s pets.

In my fourth year, I became interested in transplant surgery. Indeed, I did a two month elective in which I did research in the laboratory of one of the transplant surgeons. As part of my research there, I operated on rabbits in order to remove their livers and perfuse them ex vivo to test various hypotheses, but what really excited me at the time was that I was allowed to first assist in the pig laboratory doing liver transplants. It turns out that pigs are a fairly good model for human liver transplantation, and the transplant fellow there was expected to practice in the pig lab as part of his training and educations. Even more amazing to me as a young, fourth year medical student, I was even invited to accompany the surgeons on organ harvests, during which I got to ride in the helicopter and, once, even in a Lear jet flight to Chicago for an organ harvest. Ultimately, I decided that, whether or not I had what it took to be a transplant surgeon, I couldn’t possibly fulfill my dream of running a laboratory and be a transplant surgeon as well. The surgery, particularly liver transplant surgery, was too technically demanding; the harvests inevitably occurred at night; and the patients were just too sick, requiring more attention that I could give them with anything less than 100% effort.

I’ve written time and time again that I support the use of animals in animal research. However, I can’t help but acknowledge that the use of certain animals is less troubling than others. For example, I am fortunate in that there really isn’t much use for dogs in cancer research. Indeed, most of my preclinical research involves mice or cell culture, and I have no problem using mice. If the research requires it and the question being asked is sufficiently important to human health, I continue to support animal research, the fruits of which have brought us numerous advances in treatment and surgery. But, these days, I’m not as sure about using animals for surgical training–at least not as much as I used to be.

That’s not to say that there are at least a few advantages to using animals rather than simulators or cadavers for training. For some procedures, mainly technical procedures such as tracheostomies cadavers and simulators work just fine. However, for some procedures, there needs to be aspects of a living organism, such as blood flow through blood vessels, in order to do a good simulation. It would be nice for a surgeon in training to practice cannulating real blood vessels, with real blood flowing through them, or how to divide and tie such vessels so that they don’t leak and bleed before practicing on a human patient, even under supervision. No simulator that I’ve ever seen has been able to replicate that.

It is clearly true that societal norms and bioethics have shifted decisively over the years away from the indiscriminate use of animals in research and medical training. Some of this is spurred by fear of the animal rights movement, some of whom use terroristic tactics to pursue their agenda. Speaking with the veterinarians at our animal facility, I’ve learned that they are quite paranoid about protests, invasions of their facility to “free” animals, and even violence. Security to get into the animal facility seems almost as tight as that for entering the White House, with multiple ID checks and card readers. And our university isn’t even one that’s been threatened recently! (Thank you, flyover country!) Certainly, this shift in societal attitudes likely has played a major role in the way that using animals for surgical training has fallen into disfavor, but I suspect one reason may be an even better explanation: Technology.

These days, a lot more surgery is performed using “minimally invasive” techniques. These techniques include laparoscopy and various minimal incision techniques. If there’s one thing about laparoscopy, it’s that it lends itself very well to computer simulation, as well as simulation devices that allow the practice of surgical skills. On the low tech side, there are various boxes into which a laparoscopy camera and laparoscopic instruments can be inserted in order to practice knot tying, suturing, and cutting. On the higher tech side, there are electronic, computer-aided simulators, that give the surgeon a highly immersive experience that approximates the “real thing.” Many of these simulators even incorporate haptic feedback, complete with realistic-feeling variable resistance to motion, so that it feels as though the trainee is really tugging on tissue. Indeed, my own department of surgery is very much into this technology, which it regards as the future of surgical training, not to mention a good way for the department to distinguish itself from other departments, and I’ve played around with these simulators even though I don’t do much laparoscopic surgery anymore. The experience is very impressive. Moreover, having served as an ad hoc reviewer on an NIH study section that reviewed technology grants, I know that what’s coming down the pike will be even more impressive: 3-D combined virtual reality and imaging visualization during laparoscopic surgery.

That’s, why, in the end, I suspect that U. of M.’s decision is probably driven more by technology than ethics. Over the last decade or so, technology has advanced at an amazing pace. At the same time, society has become less willing to cause suffering in animals for purposes that it doesn’t deem sufficiently important. I realize that we’re a bit hypocritical as a society as far as that goes, given how brutal the conditions on industrialized farms and in slaughterhouses can be, but that’s just the way it is. These two forces likely conspired to end the use of dogs in training surgical residents. I have to agree that what has been lost by not using animals anymore to train surgeons is probably not sufficient to have justified the continuation of the program and that it’s likely that U. of M.’s simulation center and simulators such as TraumaMan will only get better and better. My own university is building a new center for medical student and resident training that will house several state-of-the-art simulators, including our department’s laparoscopic simulators.

There is, however, one thing that bothers me about how this came about:

It’s tremendous. All we really wanted them to do was look at it objectively and make a decision. Other schools have done that,” said Dr. John Pippen, senior medical and research adviser for the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, a national animal-welfare group based in Washington.

His group filed a complaint against the university in January with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, claiming Dr. Richard Burney, the surgeon who runs the Advanced Trauma and Life Support class, made false statements about the utility of simulators to justify using animals to the university’s animal-care committee.

The PCRM is anything but an “animal welfare” group. Rather, it is a radical animal rights group tightly affiliated with PETA. Indeed, its former national spokesperson was Jerry Vlasak, whom we’ve encountered on this blog before as the surgeon who has openly advocated the assassination of animal researchers on repeated occasions. The page I just linked to as it currently exists at PCRM no longer mentions Vlasak (gee, I wonder why), but the all-powerful Wayback Machine reveals all, and another page also reveals the connection between the PCRM and Dr. Vlasak. Don’t forget, either, that Vlasak is the one who justified the firebombing attacks on researchers’ homes by animal rights activists at UC-Santa Cruz last year, even going so far as to dismiss the threat to the researchers’ children:

If their father is willing to continue risking his livelihood in order to continue chopping up animals in a laboratory than his children are old enough to recognize the consequences. This guy knows what he is doing. He knows that every day that he goes into the laboratory and hurts animals that it is unreasonable not to expect consequences.

No wonder the PCRM distanced itself from Vlasak, although Vlasak has a long history of spewing similar venom, including when he was the spokesperson for the PCRM. Fortunately, four suspects in the firebombing were arrested last week on terrorism charges. here’s hoping that, if found guilty, the judge throws the book at them. That didn’t stop Jerry from spewing his hate in the wake of their arrests:

None of the four suspects could immediately be reached, but a spokesman for the animal-rights movement, Los Angeles surgeon Dr. Jerry Vlasak, said the protesters should be congratulated.

“We applaud anybody who steps up to the plate,” he said.

Truly, the PCRM is not an organization to be accusing anyone of making “false statements” about anything. Indeed, here are a couple of revealing quotes by Neal Bernard, its longtime President:

Neal Barnard is more circumspect about violence. The Animal Rights Reporter has written of him: “Although he disavows the use of violence, he says that researchers ‘have set themselves up for it’ and ‘have to worry’ about animal rights violence. And in an interview with Washingtonian magazine, Barnard says: “We’re demoralizing the people who think there’s a buck to be made in animal research. And they’re starting to get scared, and they’re starting to get angry, and they’re starting to give way.”

Those hardly sound like the words of an animal welfare supporter; they’re the words of an animal rights activist. Moreover, Barnard has even written letters with SHAC, one of the premiere animal rights terrorist organizations in the world.

The bottom line is that, although it is true that technology and changing mores led to the decision by U. of M. to discontinue the use of the dog lab in medical training, U. of M., like many other research universities, should be wary. The arguments that technology will eliminate the need for animals has more traction when it comes to surgical education than it does when it comes to medical research, but that doesn’t stop animal rights zealots like the PCRM from making the same sorts of bad arguments against animal research, complete with fallacious claims that animal research actually hinders medical advancement and that computer and cell culture models can replace the need for animals. The first argument is a load of fetid dingo’s kidneys, while the second argument is a gross exaggeration. It may be true that someday alternate methods may obviate the need for animal testing and research, but that day is definitely not now. In the meantime, animal research is heavily regulated based on the “three R’s“: reduction, refinement, and replacement.

It is likely that the use of animals in medical education and research will continue to decline, and that is a good thing. As much as I appreciate that it’s probably a good thing that my alma mater has finally decided to close its dog lab for surgical residents, I worry about how it came about. Worse, I fear that the PCRM will not stop there. U. of M. researchers had best be on their guard.

By Orac

Orac is the nom de blog of a humble surgeon/scientist who has an ego just big enough to delude himself that someone, somewhere might actually give a rodent's posterior about his copious verbal meanderings, but just barely small enough to admit to himself that few probably will. That surgeon is otherwise known as David Gorski.

That this particular surgeon has chosen his nom de blog based on a rather cranky and arrogant computer shaped like a clear box of blinking lights that he originally encountered when he became a fan of a 35 year old British SF television show whose special effects were renowned for their BBC/Doctor Who-style low budget look, but whose stories nonetheless resulted in some of the best, most innovative science fiction ever televised, should tell you nearly all that you need to know about Orac. (That, and the length of the preceding sentence.)

DISCLAIMER:: The various written meanderings here are the opinions of Orac and Orac alone, written on his own time. They should never be construed as representing the opinions of any other person or entity, especially Orac's cancer center, department of surgery, medical school, or university. Also note that Orac is nonpartisan; he is more than willing to criticize the statements of anyone, regardless of of political leanings, if that anyone advocates pseudoscience or quackery. Finally, medical commentary is not to be construed in any way as medical advice.

To contact Orac: [email protected]

77 replies on “Animals in research and medical training”

Great post, Orac. I agree that using dogs as research subjects is necessary, but very disconcerting at the same time. Using dogs as research subjects, however, is more justifiable than using them as food as some cultures do.

You worried me for a moment. Thankfully, I just found my med school on a list of schools with no live animal labs. I don’t know if I could handle working on dogs that I knew wouldn’t survive. It’s one of the things that changed my mind about veterinary school.

Both my mother and father do research using live animals, in the fields of brain injury and neurosensory research, respectively. Each respects the animals that they have to kill in the process of their research, which has included work on rats, cats, and monkeys. People are alive today who can walk, work, see, or hear as a result of this research.

I have friends in medical research who describe the hoops that they have to jump through in order to work on animals. They laugh at the suggestion that all they need is a really good computer model to replace the wet science work. “If only I could do computer modeling,” they cry. “That would be so much easier.”

It is absolutely shameful that your stance would be affected by happening to be a dog lover. This emotive response is at the heart of PETA/ALF/PCRM you know. So you don’t affiliate with mice or pigs? So what? Maybe other people do.

The decision should hinge on whether it is an appropriate and necessary animal model, not on whether you find them cute or not…

for shame Orac, you usually do better than this.

cell culture models

Gah! Quite apart from the scientific issues, you’d think that someone in the animal rights movement would have noticed by now that cell culture models depend on the availability of fetal or newborn bovine serum. So you can’t use cell culture without killing baby cows! (I’m also puzzled as to how to model metastatic disease with cell culture, but that’s a different issue.)

This is a sensitive issue, as a dog lover also I understand your discomfort. (Well actually I could never be comfortable in the medical world in general which is why I work with computers)

When you consider, however, how many dogs are euthanized in shelters (and people more or less generally accept this), the extra step of surgical intervention, which the dog does not consciously experience, makes some rational though not emotional sense.

Clinton: “The decision should hinge on whether it is an appropriate and necessary animal model, not on whether you find them cute or not…”

It’s not the “cute” factor (I know some fairly ugly dogs), but the fact that many of us treat our dogs as full members of the family. They sleep in our beds, go on vacation with us, play in the back yard with our children, look to us for help when they are injured, and are always happy to see us. While animal models are a necessity in medicine and science, sometimes it is hard to ignore the emotional impact an animal may have on us. Acknowledging these emotions is not a bad thing; being solely driven by them in the face of reason is.

All for the love of charismatic species.

I’m not an animal lover. I love some animals when they’re grilled and served to me on a plate. I’m actually downright caniphobic, too.

Still, I value life enough to see that if there is a viable alternative to testing on animals, then by all means go for it!

With that said, very few people have amity for pigs. If they make a good test model, then perhaps researchers should use pigs more often. Assuming the procedures are strictly surgical, maybe the carcasses can be butchered afterwards and used for food? Does anesthesia make meat inedible?

mmm…experimental bacon. *salivating*

@Joseph C: The real justification there is for keeping cows and pigs for food is that they’re tasty. I’ve heard that dog is pretty tasty too. There’s no more reason to refrain from eating dog than to refrain from eating cow.

@Rogue epidemiologist: Even for strictly surgical procedures, you need to anesthetize the animal. That would then probably render it unfit for human consumption.

Orac, I completely understand your reaction. Using dogs might be appropriate and all, but if you like dogs, there’s going to be an extra squick factor on top. Hell, I understand some people really like horsemeat, but I wouldn’t eat it unless you put a gun to my head (and even then I say nothing about keeping it down), since there are an awful lot of horses I like better than an awful lot of people. (I’d rather hang out with my old horse Papillon than George W. Bush, for example. For one thing, the conversation would be better…)

As someone who has benefitted from interventional radiology, I’m sure I’ve benefitted in some ways from research that involves animals. I too have bonded emotionally with pets, and understand the discomfort with using animals in research, especially the same species that I have had as pets. Living in a metropolitan area with many medical centers, universities and biotech companies, I regularly socialize with biomedical researchers, and have heard from them how carefully they are required to treat any animals used in their research.
At the same time, I’ve volunteered at animal shelters, and have seen animals that were abused by their owners, who sometimes are troubled children and teens. How much more could be accomplished by better access to mental health care.

Living in a metropolitan area with many medical centers, universities and biotech companies, I regularly socialize with biomedical researchers, and have heard from them how carefully they are required to treat any animals used in their research. >>>

It’s funny that I’m reading this today, because a close friend of mine and I were discussing this very subject only yesterday. She was telling me all sorts of things about her experiences with animal research. She actually found that she liked working with rats, because they are very sociable creatures, but hated working with monkeys because they were just mean. And for some reason, all the baboons would urinate whenever the lights would come on. Dunno what’s up with that, but we both thought it was odd!

I found the discussion quite fascinating and thought provoking, and found myself questioning the ethics of it all, but we both agreed that sometimes it’s just necessary, and other times, maybe not so much. She did discuss how very carefully the animals are treated though, all things considered.

Animal testing is one thing that has prevented me from ever going for a surgical career, but that is probably for the best then. I understand the need to do the research,but like some people, it would be hard for me to look in the eye of the cat or dog and say ok, I am going to do surgery on you and then euthanize you. Sometimes I wish lifers in prison could offer themselves up. They are never getting out and it would be a nice debt back to society, but that always seems to bother folks more than an animal.

There’s no more reason to refrain from eating dog than to refrain from eating cow.

This position demonstrates a lack of appreciation for all the services that canines do: herding sheep, leading the blind, assisting the disabled, working as therapy dogs, sniffing bombs, guarding homes, assisting police officers, finding bed bugs, and more. How many cows have saved humans from drowning? Did cows help search for survivors in the World Trade Center wreckage?

I am disappointed in Orac. Decisions on which species of non human animals is to be used for research or training should be based on scientific merit first and cost second. A person who uses emotion to make this decision is no better than the anti-vaccination folk who reject science and instead prey on people’s emotions.

I do appreciate Orac’s candor in this post. He has shown that he and the anti-vaccinationist are the similar. It is just on different topics that they reject science and embrace emotion.

Knowing how many thousands and thousands and thousands of dogs are euthanized for NO reason except that their “owners” grew tired of them and dumped them at shelters, knowing that once a dog lands at a high-volume shelter it has a very, very slim chance of survival, and being a lover of all kinds of animals but having an especially tender spot for dogs in particular — because dogs really do live to please people — I must say that knowing some of the dogs are ending up as subjects of biomedical research makes the tragedy seem a little less senseless.

“This position demonstrates a lack of appreciation for all the services that canines do: herding sheep, leading the blind, assisting the disabled, working as therapy dogs, sniffing bombs, guarding homes, assisting police officers, finding bed bugs, and more.”

So it’s okay to eat dogs as long as I pick the useless ones that don’t help us out by doing those things. Good, I can go back to chewing on the sweet, succulent dog meat without feeling guilty.

(Just kidding. I haven’t eaten a dog in nine years.)


And I haven’t eaten any deep fried Chinese or Korean babies for at least 10 years. It’s a pity, but the Maoists need the child labor to run the shoe factories.

Robster, is seems pretty fucking clear that people didn’t. Makes you wonder if people just google key-words to look for an argument they can start and copy-paste talking points with blanks to fill in.

The summary of some of the comments criticising Orac for having feelings seems to be, well just criticising him for having feelings, accompanied by spurious accusations with nothing to support them except…that he actually has feelings.

I suppose they’ll turn up when he talks about ethics too and go on about unscientific they are.

I don’t understand why people are upset with Orac. He didn’t like working with dog on the surgical table, but he did it, learned, and the whole thing is over. I work with mice every day in the lab, and that’s fine. But wouldn’t work with guinea pigs because I had them as pets as a child, and that has set me up with a certain set of expectations about our relationship that would interfere with research. I’d rather nor work with rat or monkeys, but that’s because I am afraid of them.

I think that part of how you relate to working with animals in the lab has to do with what you start with. My first research was with some wild-caught desert lizards, really nasty nippy escape-inclined creatures, so I never got emotionally attached to any of them. It helps you build some separation between your experience as a researcher and as a pet owner.

The anesthetized animals — obtained from shelters — were used to teach tracheotomies, how to fix collapsed lungs, and other emergency procedures. The animals’ injuries from the procedures forced them to be euthanized.>>>

I have mixed feelings about this. Animal overpopulation is such a huge problem, thanks to irresponsible pet owners that neglect to spay/neuter their pets, that I find myself thinking that if the animal is going to be euthanized anyway, perhaps some good can come of what would otherwise be a senseless death.

“And I haven’t eaten any deep fried Chinese or Korean babies for at least 10 years.”

Good for you. Eating deep-fried food is really bad for the cardiovascular health. I’ve stopped eating fried potato chips and switched to baked chips instead.

I don’t really like dogs. I don’t really like horses either.
I wouldn’t mind eating either. Actually, I like frogs a lot, but have had them for dinner. I like cats, but I wouldn’t rule out eating cat. For me, it’s just a perk of being at the top of the food chain. If cows, deer and rabbits, why not cats and dogs? What makes some animals morally reprehensible but others not?
However, I do object to causing pain to animals, and doing surgery on animals for ailments they don’t have smacks of torture and abuse. I agree at this point that for a few things there really are no other options, and so even though it is distasteful, animal research is necessary.
I accidentally killed a horseshoe crab in an undergrad lab by injecting (as per the TA’s instructions), india ink into its heart. The TA didn’t know what just about every art student does, which is that india ink is poisonous.
Watching it die is one of my saddest memories from that time, even though horseshoe crabs don’t have “feelings” and aren’t particularly “cute.”
So there’s the rule. Animals that are killed relatively quickly for eating–well, you’d might as well eat it. Animals that die slowly because some college kid f-ed up, that’s a bit morally reprehensible.

Hi I’m 12 years old and I’ve known what the animals go through since I was about 8 years old. I love animals, I always have and I alwaya will. But it’s just plain wrong to use them for our personal gain! It makes it a little better if we use the information for medical research, but its still wrong! What really makes me mad is when we use animals for fur coats or make up! Thats is just cruel! I think that we are soposed to care for animals, I think that in gods eye we are soposed to be like an older brother or sister to our animal friends. Thats all I have to say for now.

– Save the animals, Ariana

Thank you Ariana. But this particular post isn’t about a doctor cruelly killing animals. It’s a very thoughtful post, by a doctor who saves many peoples’ lives every day. He’s the sort of man who might save your mom’s life, or your life. He doesn’t kill animals for a living.
And this post is about how hard he finds it to operate on some animals – dogs particularly – so he’s not a terrible person who wants lots of animals to die. It’s just that sometimes, especailly when you do a life-saving job like Orac, you have to do nasty things. And it does upset him.
But well done for posting here. This is a clever blog, run by a clever (and, though I haven’t met him) I’m sure a very nice man. You’ll learn a lot if you read this blog – although be warned, we are sometimes very rude to people who want us to stop giving vaccinations to children.

A difficult subject.

A few weeks ago I got some shiners for ice fishing. Didn’t need ’em all, so I put a couple in a big soup pot full of water which I set in the bathtub for the cat.

And thus I made one critter delirious happy whilst making another utterly miserable.

I thought, is this what it feels like to be God?

jth wrote:
“…When you consider, however, how many dogs are euthanized in shelters (and people more or less generally accept this), the extra step of surgical intervention, which the dog does not consciously experience, makes some rational though not emotional sense.”

I could be at peace about using shelter dogs that would otherwise be euthanized as long as they don’t experience any pain. I realize that my personal squeemishness is not a guide to what is moral and right. For instance, I’d faint if I had to stand next to an orthopedic surgeon cutting off someone’s leg. However, I understand it is sometimes necessary to amputate and that my squeemishness is just my personal reaction.

I like cats myself. but I’d euthanize any number of them if I held a 51% belief that doing so would help cure some of the more awful diseases out there. I’d regret the necessity, but I’d bite the bullet (so to speak) and do it. So no, I am not a machine, and neither is Orac.

What’s the deal with Jerry Vlasak?
He’s always described as a”trauma surgeon”, but he seems to spend all his time making outrageous statements that get him booted out various animal rights groups. He now appears to be reduced to being a spokesman for the terrorist fringe.
If he really is a surgeon, he should STFU and get back to work. If he no longer practises, he should still STFU and volunteer to be an experimental animal. Then maybe this wanker might do some good for a change.

Terminal surgeries are pretty standard training in veterinary medicine, and I really can’t see any downside to them. Especially as the world is overflowing with unwanted pets that are going to be euthanized anyway.

From the animal’s point of view, it’s just the same as euthanasia – a needle and it goes to sleep, never to wake up. I’m just using propofol rather than sodium pentobarbital. (Not that a carefully measured dose of barbituate wouldn’t work for induction, either.)

I see it as like organ donation: the death is going to happen; the question is how much good will come of it.

(I always seem to shock people explaining that that’s why vets can do spays and neuters for shelters so cheap: an infinite supply of interchangeable intact pets. If I have any trouble, the question is whether it’s faster to deal with this animal or euthanize it on the table and start another. A nicely encapsulated cyst? Out it comes. Something more diffuse? Scratch this dog and take another off the euthanasia list. Oops, I didn’t mean to ligate that… is it faster to stitch it up or start another dog? Makes great sense for a shelter, but hardly what you want for your pet.)

I have to say, I’m glad I come from a country where this was sorted out before I came into the field. If I remember my animal training course, it’s been illegal to use live animals (even under terminal anaesthesia) for training purposes for about twenty years. I’m glad this decision was made for me, and I didn’t have to debate or argue the case one way or another. The ethics of animal handling is not one that I’m comfortable with.

I’m also glad that it’s illegal in this country to use animals that weren’t bred specifically for science either (i.e. from pounds and the like).

I also have to say, everyone criticising Orac for having his personal opinion informed by being a dog lover can go to hell. If he was consulted on the matter (which I take from the post he wasn’t), I’m sure he’d have been able to put his distaste behind him and make the right call, even if it was one that hurt him to make.

Nobody, but NOBODY likes using using animals in scientific procedures. We don’t going in saying “hey, this is gonna be great fun!” It’s traumatic and upsetting in a lot of ways, and not everyone is cut out for it. But your responses to different animals are different – I can euthanise use mice without much more than a sense of vague sadness, but feel the need for a stiff drink after using rats.

The whole crux of animal protection law is that causing animals to suffer is unacceptable; but allowing humans to suffer by our inaction is more unacceptable. Recognising the first part of that couplet is just as important as recognising the last.

You terrorist in pristine “White Coats” have self-elevated yourselves into a false position, believing, because your cruelty to animals is legal and supported currently by government, that you can pick and choose the animal victims for your vile torture. Legalized Animal Cruelty is an intricate key to your lofty place in society. However slowly, compassionate humans in the public is waking to the unforgivable injustice and arrogance of your crimes. Your findings mean nothing at the expense of another living breathing being, for whom you purposely bring suffering, endless misery and agonizing death, because YOU CAN.

T. Bruce, I’ve been wondering the same thing for years. I’;ve even written to the big shotsd in Sacramento to get his license removed (his group causes trauma to people, he treats affected people, clear conflict of interest).
Orac, how do you feel about cancer research done on mice or rats? Because ultimately, it is about differentiating between humans and other species of animals. Would you want to see trauma surgeons train on computers? My place has been under attack for using pigs and dogs for advanced trauma training.
And without advances in human medicine, there would be no modern veterinary medicine. Think about it.

@Zev and Confused: Go volunteer in inner-city shelters before you spew your ignorance here. You clearly do not know what you are writing about.

Orac – please don’t put “animals” and “research” in the same title again. You have enough problems with the anti-vaxx fuckwits, now you’re attracting the animal “rights” ones as well. Zev, you are a moron. Orac is a surgeon, he does not do animal experiments – try the post above, intended for a 12-year-old to see this clearly set out. That may be too difficult for you to understand, however – I know that you animal rights fascists do have a particularly low threshold of understanding when it comes to grown-up ethical ideas.
It’s a complicated world out there, fool, one where fluffy little bunnies get eaten by big bad foxes. If the best you can do, as self imposed “defender” of the rights of of dumb animals, is to post your crap on a post where a surgeon describes his distaste at using dogs as surgical training aids, then you really are a sad waste of (human) DNA. You’ve made me so cross that I’m going to take that little walk I was planning early, and drown those kittens now, And that’s your fault. Happy now?

Zev, I applaud your principled stand and have no doubt that you will refuse all medical treatment that is based on the results of animal research.

You WILL refuse, right?

You terrorist in pristine “White Coats” have self-elevated yourselves into a false position, believing, because your cruelty to animals is legal and supported currently by government, that you can pick and choose the animal victims for your vile torture. Legalized Animal Cruelty is an intricate key to your lofty place in society. However slowly, compassionate humans in the public is waking to the unforgivable injustice and arrogance of your crimes. Your findings mean nothing at the expense of another living breathing being, for whom you purposely bring suffering, endless misery and agonizing death, because YOU CAN.

So, you would refuse a life-saving medication because it had been tested on animals? You would rather die?

“I’ll take Bullshit That Fools Nobody for a thousand, Alex.”

The problem with using “computer models” is that the model has to be built on data … and the data has to come from somewhere other than the researcher’s nether exit. Then, the results of the model have to be tested. IIRC, the early artificial skin polymers were identified using computer modeling of their characteristics, reducing the hundreds of compounds to be tested to a very manageable dozen or so. Far fewer animals used, faster results.

Have any of the vehement opponents of using animals in medical research taken the next logical step, and avoid standard medical procedures that use animal products as reagents? No pregnancy tests, no transfusions, very little microbiology, etc.

Yes, Zev, do us all a favor, and refuse any and all medication where animal testing was performed to demonstrate safety and efficacy.

Perhaps you don’t understand this, but animal testing doesn’t just give us good human medicine, but also good veterinary medicine as well. Have a dog with a seizure disorder? The drugs the vet prescribes come from animal testing. Beloved pet with cancer? More drugs that come from the successes of animal testing.

You don’t just want to put medical science back in the dark ages, but veterinary medicine as well. It isn’t that you love animals, but that you love the idea of loving animals.

Frank Herbert put it best. “Sentiment is swerving to miss a dog in the road. Sentimentality is swerving and running over a crowd of people.”

Hi Orac, thanks for the well balanced piece. I agree with you that use of animals in surgical training should be limited to those procedures where there are no alternative methods available, and as you say the alternatives surgical training tools have come on leaps and bounds over the past couple of decades. Surgical training on animals in the UK is not permitted, though the Royal College of Surgeons has called for it to be premitted for microvascular surgery training and it’s apparently fairly common for surgeons do travel abroad for such training (though I’ve never seen any numbers on this).

I’m not entirely sure I’d agree with you on the dogs, would you have been so concerned had they been used for research rather than training? After all dogs have played, and continue to play, a key role in transplant research. Saying that it does sound as if the care of the dogs at Ann Arbor during your time there fell well short of what is acceptable, though it’s possible that you are basing your view on the place on one incident where things went badly wrong.

T. Bruce McNeely “What’s the deal with Jerry Vlasak?
He’s always described as a”trauma surgeon”, but he seems to spend all his time making outrageous statements that get him booted out various animal rights groups. He now appears to be reduced to being a spokesman for the terrorist fringe.T.”

A good question. A few people have looked into this, including Tom from Speaking of Research, and it seems that Vlasak hasn’t been completely honest…but honesty is hardly something you’d expect from somebody that PCRM have disowned for being to far out there.

Not entirely on topic, but I am suddenly reminded of something I saw on a blog somewhere. It was a picture of a bag of food, proudly labeled “Not Tested On Animals.”

Problem? It was a bag of dog food.

The bottom line is that animal research involves doing some very nasty things, and animal researchers are, by and large, very well aware of this, and would like nothing more than to find an alternative. This quandry is not unique to animal research. We negatively impact the lives of animals (and plants, bacteria, protists, etc) every day of our lives. Even a die-hard animal rights activist causes harm to animals merely by living, because life involves competing with other living creatures for food, water, air, and space. Even committing suicide doesn’t erase the balance sheet, because the decaying corpse changes things, perhaps poisoning a spring that some animals depend on.

We’d all like it to be some kind of garden of Eden where nobody (animal or human) has to get hurt, but that’s not the world we live in. Life is a zero-sum game. For you to win, someone else has to lose. If you build a house, someone else has to move out. The dark secret of vegan cuisine is that it, too, relies on killing animals. Sure, the animals aren’t being served up on a plate. They’re just being torn to bits by the plow slicing through their burrows. If you enjoy the fruits of society, even if you eschew leather, meat, eggs, and anything else made from animal products, you have still benefited from the deaths of animals. That can’t be changed. So instead of living in denial, and pretending that there’s some way to live well and not hurt animals, it is better to open your eyes and respect the cost of your continued existence. It would be foolish to let guilt overwhelm us; we have as much right to live as field mice do. But I do think it is healthy to have a good respect for the loss of life. It’s that respect that allows us to make good decisions when we have to decide whether to favor the welfare of an animal or the welfare of a human in a particular situation.

Orac clearly does have that respect. He mourns the necessity of animal testing, and counts himself lucky he does not need to use it for his research, but at the same time he clearly understands that the benefit is worth the cost. As long as we all keep that cost in mind, medical researchers will be diligent about making certain that unnecessary sacrifices are not made.

Calli, sounds like the cosmetics that proudly proclaim, “Not tested on animals.” They don’t need to be. All the ingredients have already been tested on animals and long ago been demonstrated to be safe.

And animal work is extremely expensive! Having enough mice to do a research study is a huge drain on a lab’s budget, but to get relevant results, you have to have it.

Great post, we just had another animal rights terror attack in the bay area a couple of days ago. Someone put a bomb under a researcher’s car.

As a research scientist, I too have misgivings about hurting animals – even mice. Violence against human is however clearly not the answer. I am going to blog about this soon.

I’m adding you to my blogroll. I saw you once before, then lost track of you. Glad I found you again.

Interesting piece on your personnal experience with this subject. Very good read.


@Joseph C.: Where my mother grew up (which wasn’t India, incidentally), people didn’t eat cows. Cows pulled the plows that allowed people to grow food. They performed a necessary and valiant service, and even after death, people respected that by not eating them. But you say you eat cows. Just because some members of some species are bred and trained to render some service doesn’t mean that other members of that species can’t be raised to render some other service (that of being eaten).

Thank you for your thoughtful post, Orac. My experience with animal is science is crying through my first-year college biology lab where we had to dissect a worm to do some sort of experiment on its nerve. My other two labmates were with me and the third one was wondering what he did to get stuck with the three of us. Poor guy. My other experience was doing ATLS my internship year where we had piglets under anesthesia to practice our techniques on. I didn’t cry, but I hated it and am glad I didn’t have to recertify in ATLS.

The flip side, of course, is I’m most happy cutting up on people. Yep… definitely no problem with that. No sqeamishness at all. I look forward to the day when animal models are no longer needed in medical research. I just don’t think it’s going to happen in my life time.

Zev, Zev, Zev…. What shall we do with hopelessly ignorant people such as yourself? Well, you don’t like animal testing? Are you familiar with the concept that virtually everything we know about medicine comes from animal experiments? Some were certainly horrible, but we learned and did not have to do them again.

So, since you object to all this, we are going to have to retroactively remove all drugs, treatments, vaccinations, surgeries, processed foods and first aid. I’m sure that won’t be a problem?

I have so many conflicting emotions about all the killing that is part of living.

I’m sad for my cats that I deprive of the outside world.

I’m angry at neighbors who allow their cats out.

Last month I saw a chipmunk, who really should have been hibernating, sweeping up seeds on the ground under my bird feeders. The pitiful thing had a broken front leg and half the skin on its hip was gone. Poor little guy. Life is very hard for some.

I’m sad when I find a half-chewed finch outside. But I’d be sadder still if it were one of the solitary pairs about, like the cardinal or the red-bellied woodpecker.

I wish the blujays would learn to STFU. But I’m impressed with their quick teamwork against hawks or crows. How do they learn to work together, and how do they know who is not to be trusted?

A bald eagle occasionally drifts over the pond to pluck a fish. That’s something to see. I remember when we nearly wiped them out with DDT.

The starlings are a curious, connected, busy society. Too bad they screw over so many others who need to nest in cavities.

As one of the “birds of Shakespeare,” the starlings were brought to Central Park a hundred years ago. We didn’t realize back then that you can’t import relationships.

It’s the relationships that matter.

Just because some members of some species are bred and trained to render some service doesn’t mean that other members of that species can’t be raised to render some other service (that of being eaten).

As I hint at above, this same argument could also carry over to eating humans. I never said that I eat cows. I said I eat deep-fried infants of select Asian nations.

Our attachment to pets, and dogs in particular, is amazing, as are the irrational actions we do for them. If I look at the people who pay thousands of dollars for vet bills for animals way past their “natural” life span, while the same money could feed a 1000 kids in Haiti for a month, and you could get a new pet due to be euthanized next week in the shelter, you have to ask yourself about our sanity.
Having said that, of course I pay my vet bills, and I haven’t returned my dog to the shelter even after he run off with $50 of beef tenderloin for a party starting 1 h later.


Not so much. The people I cut on give me their consent to do so. I don’t think the worm nor the piglet did or could or would. Perhaps therein lies my dividing line of squeamish versus non-squeamish. I wouldn’t stop all animal use in research, but boy, I do hope that the day comes where it is no longer needed.

well, at lease gaiainc isn’t all about fluffy bunnies and doggies and kitty-cats.

I’m a fungiphile, so I see right through the human bias towards charismatic species. I think it’s ludicrous to care about saving the polar bears and at the same time not give a fuck about slime molds that do wonders for our ecosystem. Biodiversity is about all organisms, not just the cuter mammals and birds.

with that, i’ll agree. it’ll be nice to reach a point where animal research becomes unnecessary. but until then, we still need animal research, even just to provide a foundation for in silico modeling.

Please go get type-I diabetes and sod off.

I wish the blujays would learn to STFU. But I’m impressed with their quick teamwork against hawks or crows. How do they learn to work together, and how do they know who is not to be trusted?>>>

Ah, a fellow birdwatcher…I detest bluejays, not so much because they are noisy, but because they tend to eat the eggs and nestlings of other birds, much like hawks and crows do. Probably the reason for the “quick teamwork,” against other birds that do the same thing…competition for food.

Hummingbirds are my favorite, though. I was heartbroken when I found a dead one in my backyard last summer. I had watched that bird visit my feeders every day, and it was like losing a beloved pet.

We are quite proud of the Cooper hawk that visits though I wish he would eat starlings instead of Tit Mice. That is nature. The larger, stronger species eat the smaller, weaker ones. I would be in a wheelchair without hamster and mice cells. So I gladly inject them weekly.

The Animal crazies should concentrate on spade and neutering and leave human medicine alone. I like walking. Don’t you have anything better to do that attack a cancer doctor? He is doing more for society than you are. Instead of googling and looking for fights, learn how to neuter cats. Than you would be helping birds.


Instead of googling and looking for fights, learn how to neuter cats. Than you would be helping birds.>>>

Maybe I’m reading this wrong, but is this directed at me? If so, I can assure you I am not an “animal crazy.” Far from it. I’m all for cancer research, especially considering that my 14 year old son recently had a very close call with a suspicious mole.

Couple years back a bluejay raided a cardinal’s nest in my front yard, and I cursed the species. Poor bald Mrs. Cardinal was beside herself.

Last summer a crow raided a bluejay’s nest in my backyard. It swooped upon the nest morning, noon, and afternoon, each time carting off a nestling screaming bloodly murder while its parents nearly martyred themselves trying to fight it off. No doubt Mrs. Crow had her own nestlings to feed back home.

At the third visit, I grabbed a rake and banged it against the porch and yelled so loud my neighbor came over to check on me. The noise startled the crow and it flew off. The one remaining chick was so desperate to be with its parents that it hopped out of the nest, onto a branch, then lost its footing and dropped 50 feet to the ground. I saw its wing tangled in the brush and ran to free it while mom and dad swooped at me.

Over the next several hours the parents coaxed it to follow them a few feet at a time, to the top of a bank about 200 feet away. They returned periodically to feed it but I lost track of it after the fourth day or so. A neighborhood cat likely got it.

Anyway, those bluejay assholes earned a little of my respect that day.

Hummers are made of magic. I love them unconditionally.

@Dr. Benway:
My brother is also an avid birdwatcher, and knows a spot in North San Antonio where painted buntings tend to hang out. I am SO jealous! That is one bird that I would love to see! 🙂

Dr. Benway said “Hummers are made of magic. I love them unconditionally.”

Though they will try to attack you. I’ve had one buzz around me threateningly. I just walked away slowly, just like I would a bumblebee sipping the flowers.

Still, I love them. This past summer I started to put in a hummingbird garden with pineapple sage, hardy fuchsias and a hardy jasmine vine ( ). Unfortunately a very cold winter killed the pineapple sage, but I bought a replacement at a local flower and garden show.

You do know that blue jays and crows are both corvids (a dad of one of my oldest son’s friends was a big fan of crows and their relations). We don’t have blue jays, we have Steller’s Jays around here. They are very striking with dark blue bodies, and a black head with a large black crest.

We have quite an abundance of Hummingbirds in our backyard (high desert of southern cal) with a number of feeders setup as well. We get quite a kick out of those amazing little creatures those hummers.
The Bluejays are indeed very aggressive birds. A friend of mine who lives in rural Orange county used to have a regular Bluejay visitor in his back yard. He would show up in the morning and my friend would feed him. He was walking along his sidewalk one day when his bluejay friend started making all sorts of racket and jumping about in front of my friend. Turns out the little guy was alerting my friend to a small rattle snake near the sidewalk, that up to that point he was unaware of.

Though I am not a “Bird” person I have over the years grown to really appreciate the hummers and other birds in our backyard.

Wow, points for that blue jay! (though if it is Orange County, CA it could be a Steller’s Jay)

I had issues with a pair of crow parents. I heard all sorts of racket around my deck. Then I attempted to go out the front door only to be met by a juvenile crow hopping on my deck furniture.

It seems the parents were trying to get it to fly.

So I closed the door and sneaked out the back door.

Later I looked out on to the front porch. I saw the baby was perched on my towel and bathing suit. Figuring that the little one was not potty trained, I got a long pole from the house and picked up the towel with the bird attached and let it drop into the shrubbery (unhurt!).

Well, later the baby bird was gone (I am assuming it managed to fly). But the crow parents let me know they were unhappy with me by dive bombing towards me when I walked along the driveway.

Here in New England, first we see the orioles and soon after the hummers. They leave us by early October.

Do they cross the Gulf of Mexico, our little guys no bigger than a thumb?

I’m worried about habitat loss down south. The world is rushing to build mega-farms, strip malls, and Walmarts. I don’t blame people for wanting money and a better life. But I wish there were some way to protect special things from the mad rush.

Shade grown coffee seems like something worth supporting.

All this dislike for jays, which are one of my favorite birds, but since I also am fascinated with parasites, poisonous and venomous critters of all types, as well as the painfully cute, I don’t expect people to agree with me. Ballsy birds, lots of character.

A family friend once had a pet crow, and while I am too young to remember if this is true, my parents claim that it even learned to mimic a few words.

Evolution produced such cruel examples as egg stealing and eating the young as predation and competition strategies, so I refuse to begrudge the hawk that hunts squirrels and rabbits, or the hungry jay.

Yes, I love the concept of shade grown coffee.

When I lived in Central America and Venezuela (Army brat, long story) all coffee was grown in the shade and in the mountains.

It is a pity that the banana republic mentality took over the coffee industry.

“I said I eat deep-fried infants of select Asian nations.”

You are such a liar. You just said you haven’t eaten them in at least ten years.

You are such a liar. You just said you haven’t eaten them in at least ten years.

Yes, but which time was I lying?

@gaiainc: so you conflate piglets with people, in that piglets ought to give informed consent?
Please put neonatalogists and pediatricians out of business then! They never get informed consent. My daughter is a surgical vet tech; her patients do not give informed consent. Her boss will be glad to know he has to seek it.

Yesterday I bought a new brand of nail polish. The brand is proud to be “carcinogenic free [sic].” In addition, every bottle also says it is “cruelty free.” I see cynical marketers at work here.

BB, I’m not conflating piglets with people. I was musing on why I (just me, no one else) have no problems performing minor surgery on people, but a worm and a piglet completely defeated me. Consent may play a part. It may not. I may just like cutting up on people and not on non-humans. I had nor have any intentions of extrapolating my experience to anyone else or any other situation or saying we should X, Y, or Z because of my experience. I still believe in the necessity of animals in research and I still hope for day when that necessity will be gone.

As for consent, the law defines who can or cannot give it and in a minor human (or pets though as a non-vet I could be wrong), it often lays outside the minor’s control and conferred to another (for better or worse) to give the consent. Given what I know of human development, seems reasonable to me.

@Dr. Benway
That is a really awesome specimen. Fine photography, too.

i’m totally disgusted with animal testing, we can live without it, maybe it helped us in the past but it’s time to give it an end now, even pharmaceutical laboratories stopped experiment on animals, real progress can be achieved in other ways.
i’m also totally disgusted with everyone who says he/ she is a dog lover or an animal lover and kills animals like you.
Take your responsibility, say yes i hate animals, i torture them, don’t pretend you are like us.
If my parents were experimenting on animals as i read above, i would have left them.
It is not only about emotion , it is about ethics and common sense , we are different from animals.
i came here by accident while looking for something else, i will never do the same mistake, i left a comment to express my disapointment for people who have no respect for life, no compassion and no common sense.

Hi, necromancer.

Let me just say that I don’t approve of releasing untested medicines onto the market, and until we get a better testing mechanism we are, alas, stuck with animal tests.

If we can ever get to a stage wherein we can get computer modeling, or even petri-dish analogs, to the same level of accuracy then I’ll be among the first to call for the cessation of animal tests… but until then, the crueler choice is to leave us no options besides human tests or just not trying to find some of those cures.

— Steve

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