Diplomate, American College of Veterinary Surgeons

University of California (Davis), Bachelor of Science (Biological Sciences and Policy Studies), 1984 - 1988
University of California (Davis), Doctorate of Veterinary Medicine, 1989 - 1993
Washington State University, Certificate of Completion (Basic Surgical Techniques - Alternative Laboratory), 1992
Washington State University, Visiting Instructor (Basic Surgical Techniques - Alternative Laboratory), 1996, 1997
American College of Veterinary Surgery Board Certification (Small Animal Surgery), 1999
Western University of Health Sciences College of Veterinary Medicine, (California), Assistant Professor (Surgery and Clinical Skills), 1999 - present

Lara Rasmussen’s journey as a conscientious objector reached an action stage in 1986 as an undergraduate at the University of California (Davis), when she refused to participate in two final-year physiology experiments involving frog skin and muscle. In 1989 she was accepted into the U.C. Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, and was disheartened and distressed at the amount of killing she encountered for teaching purposes. In 1992, after a great struggle, she and some classmates were allowed to participate in learning experiences that replaced three terminal surgical and anaesthesia laboratories. This they did, participating in the Washington State University (WSU) Alternative Surgery course and a U.C. Davis Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital anaesthesia summer clinic.

She graduated from the U.C. Davis School of Veterinary Medicine in 1993, and excelled as an intern at a small animal referral centre. In 1994 she was accepted into the surgical residency program at the University of Minnesota, and she returned to teach alternative surgical students in the WSU Alternative Surgery course in 1996 and 1997. She completed her residency in 1997, accepted a Clinical Instructor position at WSU for one year, and worked in private surgical referral practice for one year. In 1999, she received board certification from the American College of Veterinary Surgeons.

She became an Assistant Professor at the Western University of Health Sciences College of Veterinary Medicine (California) in 1999, where she is currently charged with developing the surgical and clinical skills curriculum. This is the first North American veterinary college to develop its curriculum based on the twin goals of avoiding any harm to animals whilst focusing on the mastery of clinical skills. It will accept its first students in 2003.

Lara is a living proof that an alternative surgical student can rise to the very highest levels of surgical skill and professional achievement.

Rasmussen, L., 1998, “After alternatives”,

Alternatives in Veterinary Medical Education, Issue 7, pp. 1, 2, 6.

I'm afraid my story begins quite clichéd. My ambition since childhood has been to help animals; over the years this drive developed into a goal of becoming a veterinarian, and subsequently, a surgeon. My story perhaps deviates from the norm with, to quote our Hippocratic oath, my desire to "above all do no harm." I resolved that I would educate myself in the veterinary arena without the detrimental use of animals. The following account documents my actions based on my beliefs. I do not pretend that my existence on this earth does not harm other creatures; my want is to minimize this influence. Perhaps some view this as naïve given the nature of the animal kingdom, but I believe humans are different. We have achieved a place in the animal kingdom quite unique and profound. We have been given the choice to be kind.

As an undergraduate at the University of California (Davis), two final-year exercises using frog skin and muscle brought an end to my physiology major. My polite refusal to participate was met with anger and threats compromising my veterinary future. Diplomacy and politics allowed me a change in majors and actually a chance to be exposed to such diversifying subjects as rhetoric, public policy, and environmental law.

I subsequently applied to veterinary school and was refused. I do not know whether or how much the aforementioned physiology threats influenced this outcome. Over the subsequent year, I reevaluated my beliefs; and in retrospect, I think I "sold out". My adopted attitude became, "the good of the many must outweigh the good of the few or the one." Apparently, my contrition in my second application allowed my acceptance into the U.C. Davis School of Veterinary Medicine.

My exuberance and celebration were cut short on my first day of school in front of the anatomy cooler. The sight of so much death - so many young, healthy, but all too dead dogs and cats and horses and cows and goats and chickens; I could no longer pretend it was "a few". Through veterinary school I was repeatedly faced with situations requiring the detrimental use of animals. My puny attempts to change these means of educating became stronger and stronger attempts, bolstered by my personal disgrace and my disgust with the irony of "the veterinarian" - perceived as a healer yet training through killing.

I decided in my sophomore year that my goal of becoming a veterinarian carried too many sacrifices from others; "the few" had become too many. Junior surgery was the proverbial "straw". Several of us worked very hard for many months to develop an alternative to the famed three terminal surgeries that would teach us the basics of surgery and anesthesia. To abbreviate an exhaustive ordeal, we were allowed an alternative. We participated in the Washington State University (WSU) Alternative Surgery course (3 weeks) and a U.C. Davis Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital anesthesia summer clinic (6 weeks). To this day I am still impressed by this basic surgery and anesthesia training.

After veterinary school I was offered an internship in a small animal referral center. My surgical skill evaluations from that year were very positive, and my propensity to pursue further training increased. I applied for a surgical residency with strong recommendations from the surgeons with whom I had been working.

I was accepted into the surgical residency program at the University of Minnesota. My alternative skills training was not an issue, and I felt no unique limitations regarding my abilities. I performed, I believe, as all residents do, with my share of successes and failures. Most surgeries I did were "for the first time on live animals," not because I took the alternative track but because that is the way it is. We can never be taught in school all of the procedures we will face in practice. What we need in school, and what I received, are the basic skills of instrument handling, gentle tissue handling, rapid problem solving, etc. My books and many visits to the necropsy floor to review anatomy and practice techniques supported me through my residency.

A very positive outcome to my alternative training occurred in my second year of residency. I volunteered to teach the WSU Summer Alternative Surgery Course, and they welcomed me back. That fall, the Minnesota junior surgery instructor approached me about teaching an alternative laboratory section for 13 students. The traditional exercise was a terminal celiotomy; the alternative was to be on cadavers using proper surgical protocol. I was excited by the potential this alternative inspired, yet very disappointed in the rationale of those electing an alternative. The alternative used cadavers that were killed at the pound and sold to the university, in contrast to the traditional laboratory, which used live dogs from the same pound and killed them under anesthesia. I do not believe this alternative issue is about our sensitivities and how detrimental or painful it is for us to kill an animal. A cadaver killed at the pound is just a live terminal surgery dog that was spared 24 hours of transport to the university. The alternative issue is about not wanting to see any animals killed unnecessarily for our training. I want to solve the pet overpopulation problem and stop viewing homeless animals as surplus, expendable, "they are going to die anyway" objects.

After my residency, I was offered an instructor position at WSU. My surgical abilities as a result of my junior surgery alternative training were not an issue. I was much beyond that, and I don't think that will influence my future except perhaps in one way: I like to teach, and I like to teach surgery; but my bittersweet alternative surgery experience at Minnesota led me to the decision that I will only teach under conditions that meet my moral specifications. I am a living example that it can be done well, so why should I sacrifice any more animals under my direction?

Would I do it all again? Yes, I believe I would. I am quite disappointed in the many people who put up roadblocks along the way, but they are all so insignificant. More importantly, I am impressed with the assistance I have had on my journey. The many interactions and discussions have strengthened my philosophical and rhetorical skills and made me who I am today.

During veterinary school and residency, I faced intense opposition or blank-faced apathy from humane societies, shelters, and veterinarians when I tried to procure acceptably sourced cadavers. Established human organ donor programs are accepted by the public and the medical profession; I see natural death cadaver donations in the same light. When handled compassionately, learning from death is a positive thing.

As cadavers are an integral part of veterinary training, their technical management needs improvement and refinement. The topic is not pleasant but is quite in need of advancement. Everyone involved in the use of cadavers as a veterinary training tool must understand the limitations. No one should expect dead tissue to bleed spontaneously or handle the same way as live tissue. Understanding what one can expect to gain from an exercise is as important as the exercise itself. The unpleasantness of working with nonpreserved cadavers must also be acknowledged, minimized, and accepted. Dealing with an unpleasant smell in order to gain invaluable experience without causing a healthy animal to suffer and die is a trade-off I accept.

So what do I say to aspiring veterinarians? Be strong and resourceful! Study well your personal beliefs, and learn to articulate them in a controlled manner. Unfortunately, there are times when you must justify yourself to others who stand in the path of your chosen future. Decide who and what you will sacrifice to achieve your goals, and justify that to your conscience. I caution you also not to allow yourself to become hardened and indifferent to suffering and pain as a means of dealing with our difficult role. Why enter this profession if not to help animals and people? Yes, even the large animal veterinarian should care about the downer cow, the exotics practitioner should care about the little boy whose turtle just died, and the surgeon should treat the postoperative pain in the "stoic" dog.

And as a product of the system, what do I say to the system? I see a system resistant to change. If the hypothesis is that we can only produce good veterinary surgeons with live terminal surgery training, then I disprove this hypothesis. The pilot study results are in. I strongly believe that veterinary surgery skills and anesthesia training must encompass so much more than they do today. We need to emphasize basic hand-eye coordination and manual dexterity; we need models and videos and demonstrations and tutoring. We need mentors to guide those in training. We need live recovery experience on animals who benefit from our work. We need minimum standards and enforced repetition. We need excited and motivated teachers.

The list goes on. But above all, we need to require excellence; without it, we dishonor the art of surgery.

The Western University of Health Sciences

College of Veterinary Medicine, California

Excerpted from Rasmussen, L., 2000, “Why does it matter?”, Viewpoints 2000 Series - Veterinary Medicine, [New England Anti-Vivisection Society], pp. 6-8.

Life is often described circular and I feel that my professional life has come full circle. I write this as an assistant professor and Director of Surgery and Clinical Skills for a fledgling veterinary school embarking on a long and noble journey. I was chosen for, among other things, my strong beliefs about, and aptitude for, teaching clinical veterinary skills without the harmful use of animals. So I can now answer my own questions that I posed daily as an undergraduate college student and a veterinary student: "Why in the world am I doing this? Why struggle against the establishment? Why bring down such scorn and animosity upon myself?" All along I knew there had to be a reason bigger than just me and my personal future. My efforts now enable me to speak from experience and impart my knowledge, skill, and experience to many more future generations of veterinarians. How they learn will dictate, potentially to a large extent, how they view animals and people and how they practice their chosen profession. To be part of that ongoing learning and teaching experience completes a perfect circle for me.

Core values

Students at the Western University of Health Sciences College of Veterinary Medicine will not be forced to make the sacrifices and choices so many of us have had to make. They can concentrate on both learning and caring about animals during their four years with us and beyond. The school is committed to: 1) cooperative, student-centered, life-long learning; 2) excellence through residential clinical skills programs and alliances in the private/public sector; and 3) a "Reverence for Life" philosophy.

The curriculum relies heavily on the science of education. Our cadaver exercises will be supplied through a willed body program that involves students in acknowledging the animals and their guardians in life. The ethical problems of killing healthy unwanted animals will be dealt with forthrightly through the students' direct exposure and experience with this devastating problem. The curriculum relies on the non-detrimental use of animals.

We can choose to be kind

It feels good not to hurt someone. It feels good to move a snail off the sidewalk instead of squashing it. It feels good to comfort an infant. It feels good to help someone in need. It felt immeasurably good to watch my husband carefully take a gnat who was sitting on our kitchen window outside instead of killing it. We are human beings who can choose to be kind. We all must acknowledge that the choice to be kind is a worthy pursuit. It is actually good for us. I am glad that my own need to be kind translated into the courage I needed to challenge a system of education that had somehow lost sight of this. Clichéd though it sounds, we can make a difference. And I am glad that now as a veterinary educator I can support this moral conviction to be kind in others.  

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