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'No Harm' Approach to Medicine

Students at a new veterinary college are learning their profession by practicing on animals that have died naturally.

October 07, 2003|Steve Hymon | Times Staff Writer

Thirty students, standing around several stainless steel tables, are poking at dead dogs with scalpels. It's a scene that would likely raise the hackles of most dog owners -- or prompt them to hide under a bed.

But these students, members of the first class at Western University's new veterinary school in Pomona, actually are practicing what the school calls "no harm" medicine. They are part of what school leaders say is a revolution in the way that veterinary medicine is taught and practiced in the United States.

At many schools, it's common practice to buy live dogs and cats from pounds or biomedical firms, then have students operate on them and later euthanize them. But these kinds of surgeries won't occur at Western, which has pledged to use donated animals only -- those that have already died of natural causes or been put to sleep because of illness or old age.

"I don't know that I could dissect an animal knowing that it was killed for that purpose," said Rebecca Merlo, 23, of San Diego as she tries to find the shoulder joint of the dog she's working on. "I'm glad I don't have to be a part of that."

Lecturing, too, has been abolished at Western; it's considered too boring and ineffective. Nor is there a veterinary hospital on campus. Students instead will hone their diagnostic and treatment skills in courses where they are presented with theoretical case studies -- such as a dog with a tricky shoulder. Later, they will get much of their training alongside real vets in clinics throughout Southern California.

"I think that most veterinary schools bristle at the words 'animal rights' because they perceive it as a bunch of wild-eyed lunatics freeing animals and burning down buildings," said Shirley Johnston, the dean of Western's veterinary school. "I know that our job is to educate students. But we think we should stand for this."

The school, which opened in August, is the only one in the state besides UC Davis. It adds some distinctive touches. Several days before the students began dissecting their dogs, for example, a ceremony was held in which the dogs' owners told students about their deceased pets' lives, even showing them videos.

"Other vet programs and labs that I toured, you're being educated with tools that are just perceived as meat," said Brian Van Horn, 29, a student from Porterville. "Here we actually know the names of our cadavers. We get information about the lives they led."

Some veterinarians applaud the school's approach.

"I know people who have literally been waiting for years for Western to open," said Linnaea Stull, a veterinarian in Atascadero on the Central Coast.

In 1999, Stull helped lead a student revolt at the University of Illinois. Veterinary students had alleged that the school was asking them to kill animals for no good reason -- sometimes to see how an infection destroyed an animal's organs.

Other animal doctors wonder whether pet owners will muster the emotional strength to donate animals to the school for hands-on dissections. They also wonder whether the lack of operations on live animals at the school will deprive students of surgical experience.

"It's certainly a different flavor" at Western, said Jack Walther, president of the American Veterinary Medical Assn. "From my own personal perspective, there is a certain necessity to doing some procedures on a warm body, if you will. It's just the reality of learning medicine."

There are an estimated 61.9 million dogs, 68.9 million cats, 10.1 million pet birds and 5.1 million horses in the U.S., and millions more farm, zoo and research animals, according to the veterinarians' organization.

Although the number of pets has increased in the U.S. in recent years, the number of veterinarians has not. Most of the nation's veterinary programs were established in the late 1800s or early 1900s at large agricultural schools, such as Texas A&M, Illinois, Minnesota, Washington State and UC Davis. In those days, most veterinarians were men treating farm animals.

These days, most veterinarians-in-training are not men; 73 of the 86 students in Western's first class are women. And few universities are willing to found veterinary schools, which are expensive to operate, when they are strapped for funds to run existing programs.

Including Western, there are 28 veterinary colleges in the U.S., not enough to meet demand. Recent statistics from the American Medical Assn. and the Assn. of American Veterinary Medical Colleges suggest that it is now harder to get into veterinary school than medical school.

In the past, ethics was an important part of a veterinarian's education, but hardly at the top of the list. That has changed markedly, because most students who go to the agricultural schools end up in cities, caring for small pets -- and because urban pet owners sometimes see their animals as having the same rights as humans.

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