Just like doctors, veterinarians need hands-on experience with patients in order to become better at treating them. Dissecting cadavers, human and animal, is a great way to get that experience. For one, there are no consequences if a student slips up with a scalpel. But how does the donation process work?
I spoke with Simon Peek, a professor at the University of Wisconsin Madison, School of Veterinary Sciences, to find out more. Professor Peek has an impressive list of credentials, and an impressively smooth British accent to match. He graduated from Cornell University with the PhD, has co-authored at least two books, and is an expert in things I cannot even pronounce, let alone comprehend. (Theriogenology-- uh, Thare-eeeeooh-ge... yeah, whatever that is.) Did I mention the accent? Very dreamy. That's him there --------->
Professor Peek says that UWSVM takes in less than twenty horses per year, though that number can vary greatly based on the needs of the school. Some horses, usually old or ill, are euthanized almost immediately after being donated, then used for practice surgeries, disease study and dissection. The school is largely interested in accepting donated horses in this category, especially ones with unusual deformities, advanced diseases and other problems, since they are most valuable in teaching students. A few horses, mostly mares, are kept as practice patients for vet students to hone their skills on. Peek is quick to clarify that these procedures are all routine and painless (taking pulses and temperatures, doing ultrasounds, etc). Most rarely of all, according to Peek, is that a healthy horse might be used in "research," i.e. used in experiments.
Peek is wary about this topic, since the recent controversy over cat experiments at the University. He declined to comment on that subject over the phone, except to say that it's making everyone nervous (we'll get back to it in a bit). As for horses, Peek himself is not performing any horse research at the moment, and is unaware of any colleagues that are. He also wanted to emphasize that, "the [school's] first commitment is to the horse." No ill or injured horses are kept that way for study-- they are treated or euthanized immediately.
Speaking of euthanasia, Peek says that all too often, people seeking a cheap way out ask about donating their old horses rather than paying for the cost of euthanasia and burial themselves. "We don't do that," he says. UWSVM is not a good resource for those looking for free assistance. In fact, Peek rather ashamedly goes on to admit that the Vet School is so pressured by "budgetary woes," that, when a horse is accepted for donation, "although we feel extremely self-conscious in doing so, particularly because this is such an emotional time, and people are donating their animal, we usually ask for a monetary donation to help cover our costs." He says that this varies case by case, but usually runs about $200 (still much less than the cost of euthanasia by your regular vet and rendering).
So what do you do if you are interested in donating your horse to the vets for the betterment of human and equine alike? Professor Peek says the process is, "rather ad hoc." You should contact the large animal desk at UWSVM, and eventually someone will talk to you about your horse, what you are willing or not willing to have done to it, and the possibility of donation. Don't get them wrong, they are very grateful for donations-- it's just that they can't afford take every horse offered. Be sure to have all the past vet records for the horse on hand.
I was very appreciative of Dr. Peek's willingness to talk to me, a lowly internet nobody, about these issues. I just wish his colleagues over at the University were a little more forthcoming.
It's the actual University of Madison, not the Vet School, that has been conducting experiments on animals.Though the difference may seem academic, I believe it's important. A good veterinarian upholds the same ideals as a doctor-- first, do no harm. The patient is most important, not the success or failure of a procedure. Researchers, however, operate under a different ideology. Though most researchers are not purposefully cruel to animals in research (simply because doing so might skew the test results) neither are they particularly concerned about an animal as an individual.
Let's back up a second. If you've been living with your head under a rock, you may not know that PETA has accused UW Madison of cruelty on and off for decades because they conduct animal experiments. Some of it is probably justified (decompression experiments on sheep) and some of it probably isn't (milking a cow is not like rape). Most recently, PETA has caused an uproar about a cat named Double Trouble (article here). Double Trouble was used in experiments involving cochlear implants, devices which allow deaf people to hear. They wanted to know more about how the brain locates the origin of a sound. During the experiments, they did some fairly gruesome things, though all with pain medication and all within the limits of the law. PETA, however, has provided some pretty convincing evidence that these cats, Double Trouble especially, suffered. More pictures here (warning: pretty awful).
PETA got these pictures, and the evidence for the cats' suffering, from the UW's own records by legally requesting them via a nice little law that says government funded places have to reveal everything they do.
Now, I usually hate PETA, and I'm not necessarily against animal experimentation (except for experiments on primates-- go fuck yourselves on that one, scientists. And couldn't we just use convicted child molesters for everything instead?). We've used animals to develop pretty much every vaccine, heart implant, life-saving medication and complex surgical procedure known to man, benefits I've reaped myself. Were it not for animal experiments, I'd be a half-blind, one-armed crazy woman with constant ear infections and six kids. And there's just no way around it-- we still need animals (or criminals) to develop more of that stuff. No matter what the idealists would have you believe, a computer will never be a substitute for a living organism. However, I have several problems with this particular crap:
1) It does seem like there was unnecessary suffering in this case.
2) We don't know that this research was in any way important. UW Madison has passed it off as "cochlear implant research." Uh, we have those available to the public already, they work great. What's this really about? Because if it's building a better war machine, or research for the sake of research.... ugh.
3) Why don't they talk to us?
Professor Peek, a pretty important guy, was cool enough to walk me through the ins and outs of donating horses to the UW Vet School. He even talked about some of the controversial stuff, like asking for money from horse owners, experiments on horses and using live horses as practice patients. He was willing to talk about things he was slightly embarrassed about, to a random person on the phone, in a way that made sense. But the best that the University can do is issue a statement that basically says, "We didn't do anything wrong."
Listen up UWMad. I'm willing to be on your side in this, but not if you act like a shady motherfucker. Talk to us. Tell us, in plain English, what these experiments are really about, why you believe the suffering of these cats was justified, what you did wrong, and how you can do better. Nothing says "guilty" to me like clamming up. I understand if you aren't allowed to talk specifically about the research because it involves patented techniques or whatever, but tell us that, then do your best to explain without revealing any tech secrets. It's not hard, we don't need the technical stuff!
I'm sure PETA and other hard-liners would blame UW Mad no matter what, but for the average Joe, a little explanation would go a long way. Without that explanation, I'm forced to err on the side of PETA. And Lord, do I hate doing that. One of the reasons Professor Peek and his colleagues are nervous is that PETA likes to throw around fake blood, harass vets and scientists, and fund terrorist groups like ALF that attack people and burn down buildings. But that's an expletive-filled post for another time.
|...fucking lying shock-jock hypocrites.|