The door to the old laboratory near St Vincent’s Hospital in Fitzroy was unmarked for good reason. Inside, about six live greyhounds were strapped to operating tables waiting to be cut open.
The tall, thin dogs were lying on their backs, barrel-shaped chests in the air, legs unnaturally tied down on their sides. They had been anaesthetised and had tubes in their mouths to keep them breathing, just like people would during major surgery.
For Jill Tomlinson, it was a shocking sight. Like many trainee surgeons before her, Dr Tomlinson was there for the “early management of severe trauma” course in 2004 – an essential part of her training. She does not know where the dogs came from but suspects they had been used for racing.
In groups of four, the aspiring surgeons had to cut holes in a dog’s throat, chest, abdomen and leg to insert tubes for air, fluid drainage or drug infusion. The potentially life-saving techniques are used on people with serious injuries needing emergency care.
“Because I had expressed concerns … my demonstrator [a senior surgeon teaching the course] turned up the gas fairly high and said I could be reassured the animal wouldn’t feel anything,” Dr Tomlinson recalls.
Still, she loathed slicing the dog’s chest open with a scalpel to insert a tube into the space between its lung and chest cavity because she thought it unnecessary. Dr Tomlinson said she had previously worked on cadavers and believed the college could use tissue samples from dead animals or mannequins used for other medical training instead.
“I was both upset and angry that I had no other alternative than to participate in something that I felt was wrong,” she says.
Dr Tomlinson is one of nearly 86,000 people lobbying the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons to stop using live animals in their training courses. This year hundreds of animals – most likely sheep and pigs – are scheduled to be used for dozens of trauma courses at venues including hospitals such as Westmead and St George in Sydney. After the procedures, the college says the animals are humanely killed.
A petition run by PETA (People for the ethical treatment of animals) says despite the availability of patient simulators and despite other countries ceasing the use of live animals for surgical training, the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons continues the practice needlessly.
“Unlike animals, realistic simulators accurately replicate human anatomy and physiology and are reusable and shareable,” the petition says.
The group says simulators are so effective the US military recently banned the use of animals for its equivalent trauma course. It says “continuing to mutilate and kill animals for these trauma training courses is extremely cruel and archaic” and breaches the National Health and Medical Research Council’s guidelines, which say the use of animals must be justified and only used when suitable alternatives are not available.
President of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons David Watters said live animals were used for severe trauma courses because they better replicate emergency situations where there is a beating heart and blood loss. He said the college currently only uses sheep and pigs in accordance with the Australian Code of Practice for the Care and Use of Animals for Scientific Purposes (the NHMRC guidelines referred to by PETA), and that a vet or qualified animal technician is always present.
“Great care is undertaken in regard to the animals’ welfare … with constant veterinary anaesthetic supervision to ensure animals experience no pain,” he said. “At the end of the procedure the animals are humanely euthanised.”
Professor Watters said while participants who object to working on live animals can attend the course and use patient simulators at a small number of sites, the college does not believe these simulators are good enough to replace animals for all of the courses. He is hoping they will be suitable within five years.
Meanwhile, he said the overwhelming response obtained from participants was that mannequins do not reproduce the feel and responsiveness of living tissue to a degree that faithfully represents reality.
“The medical literature supports this position with a strong preference for the anaesthetised animal approach from both participants and instructors,” he said.
Dr Tomlinson, now a plastic surgeon, disagrees. Since the course, she has performed the procedures on humans and said there were major differences between the anatomy of a human and a greyhound.
“I don’t think the argument that it needs to be done for training holds up,” she said.
Another surgeon who did not want to be named agrees. When she did the course five years ago, she said she was horrified by the experience of “killing a dog bit by bit”. At one stage she said a peer accidentally punctured the dog’s bladder while trying to insert a tube into its abdomen, causing urine to spray out. Shortly after that, the dog stopped breathing on the table.
“The dog had been over-gassed, so it just died on the table,” she said. “It was more traumatic than euthanising it … It just wasn’t the right thing to do.”