Bachelor of Veterinary Medicine; VSTEP

Kharkov Zoovet Academy, Kharkov, Ukraine (1997-2002); VSTEP, Ontario Veterinary College, Canada (2009)


My first experience with animal use in education happened during 1997 in my first year as a veterinary student at Kharkov Zoovet Academy in the Ukraine. Someone started a rumour that dogs were being killed for anatomy classes. I didn’t take it seriously. How could it be possible for a veterinary school to be killing dogs? Someone came to the classroom and said that they had seen a stray dog being electrocuted in the anatomy building. I remember that moment really well. I felt like I was struck by lightning. The earth drifted from my feet and I felt sick to my stomach. I had to leave the classroom and go outside.

Eventually, we got used to the killing of dogs. We were told that it is for a good purpose and that it was done humanely. Moreover, we felt it wasn’t up to us. We decided to not think about it.

The following year, I took some physiology classes. Physiology is a very exciting subject for me and the lectures reflected what I felt was a triumph of humane knowledge and cutting edge science. I was so interested that I was spending my nights reading physiology textbooks. A couple of weeks later, we were asked to catch forest frogs for the upcoming wet labs. It didn’t seem right. I didn’t capture any frogs, but other students did, so we had enough for the class.

During the first lab, the teacher showed us how to make a ‘musculo-skeletal model’ for physiological experiments. She held a live frog in one hand and a pair of blunt scissors in another, then started cutting the head of the frog with her blunt scissors in front of us. There was no anaesthetic. I ran out of the door crying. I felt the pain of the frog and I felt like it was me being decapitated. I felt trapped and helpless.

My classmates felt bad for me, but thought I was too soft. I didn’t think I was being soft: I was feeling compassion and empathy for other sentient beings. And I rebelled. I told the teacher that I would not take part in any of the wet labs. She said that I’d have to drop of the program. I replied that I’d prove at the exam that I knew as much as anyone else. And I did. I got the highest score and, as a result, the teacher couldn't make me quit.

The year after, I learned about EuroNICHE (later InterNICHE). A very enthusiastic activist and National Contact for the organisation, Victoria Meshcheryakova, came to our school to talk about alternatives to animal use in education. I thought I was dreaming. It was clear that there were other people fighting against animal experiments and that there were other options. I learned about computer models, videos and simulators, and I got in touch with InterNICHE Co-ordinator Nick Jukes.

I became involved with InterNICHE in 1999 as National Contact, and my involvement continues today. Many seminars, conferences and an enormous amount of outreach have been done in the Ukraine and worldwide over the years by InterNICHE volunteers, students, supportive teachers, and Nick. At my university, the co-ordinators of the anatomy program started looking into ethically sourced cadavers for their courses, the physiology department got a generous donation of used computers for implementing computer simulations, and pharmacology and bacteriology professors showed interest in videos and models. Further change, including widespread replacement, has been achieved across the Ukraine by the new National Contact Dmitry Leporsky working with Nick and other colleagues.

In 2007 I moved to Canada and had to do some re-training to become a licensed veterinarian. I joined the Veterinary Skills Training and Enhancement Program (VSTEP) program at the Ontario Veterinary College (OVC) in 2009toacquire specific technical skills relating to anaesthesia, surgery, medicine, pathology, pharmacology and radiology. While most of the animals used in the program were involved in minimally invasive procedures, there were mandatory terminal surgeries on live animals for the anaesthesia and surgery lab. Fortunately, my long-term co-operation with InterNICHE prepared me for addressing this challenging situation and reaching a successful conclusion.

The spay procedure is routinely performed at private veterinary clinics and animal shelters all around the world and doesn’t require the death of the animals. However, at VSTEP, each participant was supposed to perform an ovario-hysterectomy (spay) on an intact female dog, at the end of which the dogs were euthanized. In 2009, 40 dogs were bought from pounds and breeders for teaching purposes.

A written request was submitted to a VSTEP official for permission to participate in an alternative program for the anaesthesia and surgery lab. The alternative program involves practising surgical skills on a cadaver and performing anaesthesia on the animals that are later recovered. Numerous scientific studies have been published that compare alternative and traditional methods of training and preparing students for clinical practice. The studies demonstrate that alternative programs can satisfy the moral concerns of students, while maintaining high standards in the quality of their education.

VSTEP declined the request, thereby violating the university’s Animal Use Guidance. OVC has successfully used an alternative program for veterinary students for many years, which is evidence that an effective alternative program was available and could have been used. A negotiation process was initiated in close cooperation with InterNICHE. I proposed a number of solutions:

1)      Performing the surgery on an ethically sourced cadaver: According to the InterNICHE Policy, ‘ethically sourced' means that the animals are free-living and are not bred or killed to provide cadavers or tissue for the practical, nor that a market is created or supported for such acquisition. Examples of ethical sourcing include companion animals that have died naturally or in accidents, or have been euthanized for medical reasons.

2)      Performing surgery on a humane society animal: Students practise surgery under supervision of experienced surgeons and acquire important surgical skills, with the animal shelter getting the procedures performed at minimal cost.

3)      Performing surgery in real clinical settings: This can be one of the most successful educational approaches for veterinary students. Clinical practice from a veterinary program provides a diversity of situations that veterinarians will be exposed to after graduation and allows a better transition from the academic to “field” practice.

4)      Using surgical models for the procedure: Numerous surgical alternatives are available and widely used for the training of human and veterinary surgeons. OVC itself had developed and implemented a basic surgical skills practice model called ‘DASIE’. More sophisticated mannekins are available for advanced surgical techniques.

Unfortunately the negotiation process with VSTEP was not successful, and legal advice was sought. The Toronto-based organization Lawyers for Animal Welfare (LAW) advised that in Ontario, the Human Rights Code requires that every service provides equal treatment without discrimination based on creed, accommodating all users unless doing so would place an undue hardship on the person accommodating, or on the organization. This information was forwarded to VSTEP officials and several days later the changes to a protocol were made. Permission was obtained to recover one dog after the surgical procedure. An 11 month old female beagle named Rainbow was successfully spayed and brought to a caring temporary home. After a month of training and adaptation she was transferred to a permanent home and family.

One year later, in 2010, the Animal Alliance of Canada, with support from InterNICHE, LAW, the media and animal rights activists, started a campaign to eliminate all live animal surgeries in OVC. CBC news broadcasted the ‘Story of Rainbow’ on the national TV channel and the situation concerning terminal surgeries at OVC became public knowledge. Numerous people contacted the college to demonstrate their disapproval of the current practice of killing dogs in order to train veterinarians. Some people decided to withdraw their donations to the university based on the TV reportage.

The combination of all the efforts brought success. In August 2010, the school announced that henceforth all of the beagles used for the VSTEP program would be recovered post-operatively and adopted out. In September 2010, the OVC announced that they would work towards an alternative-based training system that would not only change the way veterinary students are taught, but help make harmful animal practice a thing of the past. The transition involved using training models, simulators, cadavers and closely supervised surgery on live animals that benefit from the procedures rather than being killed after surgery.

My experience in the Ukraine and now in Canada built my confidence and taught me many things. I learned a lot about the value of information and good strategy, including the importance of finding the right people and organisations with whom to work and form alliances. The case of VSTEP at OVC demonstrates the feasibility of implementing such alternative tools and approaches and the potential of student-based initiatives to catalyse change. I am very happy to have been part of successful campaigns that have helped transform veterinary education and training.