Bachelor of Veterinary Science (2001-2005)

Faculty of Veterinary Science, University of Melbourne, Australia


I wanted to be a vet from when I was very young, and always cared deeply for the welfare of non-human animals.  I decided to do a veterinary degree with the purpose of improving their welfare, and entered the veterinary science course at Melbourne University as a mature age student, having done a number of different jobs after finishing high school, including working with horses.

The first and second years of the vet degree involved lots of dissections, using greyhounds which had been euthanised due to lack of performance on the racing track. I was absolutely disgusted at the complete lack of empathy and respect shown towards these dogs by staff and students. During anatomy classes my peers would joke about which part of the greyhound would taste the best on a barbeque and at times would throw pieces of muscles they had dissected from a greyhound at each other. It was at this early point in my course that I started to wonder whether there were humane alternatives available, but I had no idea where to look or who to turn to for assistance.

I started searching on the internet, particularly animal rights websites, hoping to find something. I stumbled across an interview with Andrew Knight on the Animal Liberation NSW website, and couldn’t believe there was another vet student also opposed to this kind of thing. I got in contact directly with Andrew, which led to the beginning of my campaign against harmful animal use at Melbourne University.

When I found out about the terminal surgery classes that I would be facing later in my degree, I was shocked that this was how students are taught to perform surgeries. I always thought that students would learn under the strict guidance of experienced veterinarians out in private practice and/or at shelters. I knew I had to do something – there was no way I was going to take part in those terminal surgery classes.

In 2002, we started putting together a submission for alternatives to harmful practical classes, which I was to hand in to the Dean of Veterinary Science. Andrew provided most of the papers to include in the submission. I also used the InterNICHE website and discussion list for information. I then put together a covering letter and attempted to get signatures from my peers to support this submission. I had 6 or 7 other vet students at that time who were willing to support me. I thought that wasn’t bad considering how narrow minded most of my peers were.

I handed my completed submission to the Dean. I was approached by the head of the surgery department not long afterwards and was told that the Dean had passed the submission on to him and it was unlikely that the Dean had even read it. I was not impressed! But I was also not surprised at the disinterest shown by what was and still is a very conservative university.

The head of surgery then set up and attended a meeting with the Dean, myself, and one other student who also did not want to take part in the terminal surgery classes. The Dean spent the whole time questioning my beliefs and patronising me. But he said that they should be able to organise some cadavers of dogs, that he said would have been euthanised for health reasons, for me to complete the surgical practical classes later on in the course. 

Very soon after I had this meeting, the first surgical class, which was written in the practical book as a live surgery as it had been every year, was changed to a class only involving the use of cadavers. After students were informed of this, a student approached the front of the class one day at a lecture and announced that “someone” (that is, me) was trying to “ruin” the surgical course for everyone. He said that a petition was being passed around the room so that those opposed to an alternative could sign it. Sadly, virtually everyone signed the petition, including several who had previously supported me by signing my submission. Not long afterwards I began receiving some very unpleasant, and at times abusive emails, from a number of my peers including claims that I was “single-handedly trying to tarnish the reputation of the veterinary school”.

And so began the practical classes later in the third year. The first surgical class, where all students were indeed now using only cadavers, was to learn how to do a thoracotomy. The next week I arrived for my second surgical class, thankful that I myself would not be killing any animals in order to learn. But despite this I had to endure seeing students dragging petrified dogs in to the surgery area. This was to be the last time these dogs would ever see sunshine. I felt physically sick knowing that these innocent dogs were going to be killed later that morning. My practical partner and I received our cadaver while the other students had 1 live dog per group.

The surgery that was performed was a spay. I will never forget seeing students repeatedly attempting catheterisation on their dog despite the high level of stress that it caused them. The practical classes were disorganised and poorly supervised. I witnessed one of the groups, which included some friends of mine, struggling with their surgery. The student performing the surgery told another member of the group that their dog was bleeding. It was clear that they were extremely stressed by the situation and had absolutely no clue what to do. There were no staff members around to help. Finally a staff member appeared, and a member of the student group informed her that their dog was “bleeding out”. 

I questioned the staff more than once as to where the dogs used for the labs were sourced from, only to be given a vague answer. Many of the dogs were kelpies or kelpie crosses. Considering the lack of information from staff regarding these dogs, and the breeds used, I believe they must have come from farms or backyard breeders. The university has a dog colony at the Werribee campus, where students undertake the final 2 years of the course. Dogs kept in this colony were kept in small concrete runs with no bedding provided. They had no mental stimulation and were surrounded by other dogs barking continuously.

At every class I had my beliefs questioned and I received puzzled looks from veterinary staff who just couldn’t understand why I didn’t want to take part in the terminal surgeries. I also began to be treated differently by certain members of staff, including the Dean, who would ignore me or be rude towards me.

But after the surgical classes had finished I questioned the head of surgery as to whether an alternative course would be incorporated in to the syllabus and he said “yes”. I was treated very badly during the remainder of my course, particularly towards the end, but finally I graduated. 

After practising as a vet for a while I found out from a vet student that no alternative course was in place yet, so I began to focus again on getting alternatives implemented for students who would be following me. In 2008, through Animal Liberation Victoria, I got in touch with a journalist who was very interested in running a story on this topic. I told her my experiences and what alternatives I thought should be put in to place. The article came out in a major Melbourne newspaper, the Herald Sun. Although the editor removed many important elements, it was still great that it was published.

There was a huge response from the public to this article, which was fantastic. Many people wrote in online to express their views, many disgusted and outraged by what was happening at the university. I tried contacting the vet school more than once after the newspaper article, but predictably never got an answer, even from the head of surgery.

Later in 2008, a high profile radio presenter in Melbourne also ran a piece on the issue. The radio presenter wanted to interview me but I was ill at the time and so a representative from Animal Liberation Victoria stepped in for me. The other side was represented by the Dean of Veterinary Science at Melbourne University. The Dean, as expected, kept justifying the practices at the university and unfortunately the radio presenter, who was not informed about the topic, seemed to side with the Dean.  

The campaign died down from 2009, but the news coverage had put things into motion and in more ways than I realised at the time. It was in 2011 that I finally got the answer I had waited for - from a chance encounter with a final year vet student at work. He told me that their entire year level was brought together for a meeting late in 2010, and members of staff proceeded to ask who would still like to take part in the terminal surgical classes. He said that most students wanted to continue them. Staff then announced to students that due to public pressure following the newspaper article they would have to cancel all future terminal surgical classes.

I contacted the university itself to ask for written confirmation about this change. The reply was as follows:

“You are correct, the Faculty does not use terminal surgeries in its veterinary teaching program and has developed a range of other options, including a partnership with an animal welfare organization, to ensure that our students receive optimal training in anaesthesia and surgery”.

I also requested written confirmation from the Animal Welfare officer at Melbourne University, who is a veterinarian.  Her reply, in November 2011, stated:

“I've now received an informal verbal update from the surgery team, as follows:

The EBC synthetic abdominal model has now been fully implemented and has replaced the use of 40 animals. This model utilises pig intestine sourced from an abattoir, which is glued and sutured into a model within a stuffed dog. Opsite film is placed over the synthetic layers representing skin, subcutaneous tissues and muscle. Students practice doing incisions and an intestinal anastamosis to resect a texta-marked intestinal lesion. The students have given very positive feedback regarding the design of this model both from an educational perspective (tissue handling and suturing/closure techniques) and from a Replacement perspective. 

Further to the above, a neutering clinic arrangement has now been set up in conjunction with external veterinary organisation, to enable students to learn to desex in clinical patients.

Further examples of Replacement which have been implemented include the use of synthetic bones for learning and practising orthopaedic techniques (plating, screws etc). The use of the VirtualVetSurgery multimedia program further complements the surgery teaching through the provision of theory as well as videos of techniques.

I think the team appears to have done a good job with this, with their implementation of the 3Rs. I hope this addresses your concerns.”

Other than the use of pig intestine, I’m very happy with what has been implemented. It is a far cry from what was being done while I was a vet student. I am relieved that all the stress and hard work has finally paid off! Most of all, I am pleased that no dogs will be subjected to the terminal surgery practicals any more and that no student will ever have to go through what I had to go through. Having said that, I would do it all again, as it resulted in major changes to the curriculum of the veterinary course.  

A huge thank you goes to Dr Andrew Knight, who provided me with much needed moral support and guidance throughout much of my time in vet school.

Herald Sun article