A Dog's Life
When scientists at the Tufts veterinary school fractured the legs of six dogs to see how they healed, and then euthanized the dogs, all in the name of research, the ensuing outcry reopened the argument over how far is too far when it comes to using animals to advance medicine.
Tara Turner grew up on a vegetable farm in Wisconsin with a mom who loved animals and a dad who introduced her to the teachings of Albert Schweitzer. The German missionary and doctor was legendary for his writings on the ethical treatment of animals, so it's no surprise that Turner, after reading his papers, began devoting her own life to the subject. Now, at 26, she is working toward a master's degree at the Center for Animals and Public Policy at the Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine, one of the only institutions in the country that studies human-animal relations.
Turner's as wholesome-looking as you'd expect of someone raised on a Midwestern farm, with a turned-up nose and a summery smile. She's frequently in the company of her two adoptees, Pooh-bear, a pit bull, and Madison, a pit bull-lab mix - two intimidating canines who are really just a couple of "big cuddlebugs," Turner says. Her voice is so gentle it's difficult to see her as an outspoken animal-rights advocate. She's just a young woman who happens to love animals, which is what attracted her to the Tufts veterinary school's rural campus in Grafton, 40 miles north of Boston.
It was at this campus in January that Turner and three of her graduate-school classmates publicized the fact that researchers at the school had surgically fractured the hind legs of six dogs, healed the legs, and then euthanized the dogs to study the results. The goal was to find better ways to mend broken bones in dogs, but the fact that an institution dedicated to healing small animals on one part of its campus could destroy those same animals on another part caused an uproar and reopened a long-simmering debate about how far is too far when it comes to using animals for research.
"Schweitzer said that we don't think enough about our actions," says Turner, explaining why she and her classmates spoke out as they did, "and that at each step we should minimize the harm that we do."
Of course, the definition of harm depends on whom you talk to at the Tufts vet school. Since the students went public with the issue, angry letters have poured in to the veterinary college, donors have threatened to withdraw their contributions, and people have raised questions about the school's national reputation as a leader in the humane treatment of animals. "People who work here got all kinds of abuse they didn't deserve," says Allen T. Rutberg, an assistant professor and researcher at the center.
If the folks at the Tufts school are feeling shaken these days, it's a reflection of the veterinary profession as a whole, which is being buffeted anew by the animal-welfare movement. Animal welfare has gone mainstream since the mid-1970s. Research institutions now operate under animal-protection guidelines, medical schools are eliminating their live-dog dissections, and some high schools are allowing students to opt out of the traditional frog dissections. Hollywood filmmakers must have representatives from American Humane on site for most productions involving animals.
And yet through all of this, veterinarians have avoided the fray. Working on the front lines, many have come to accept that to help most animals you might have to hurt a few. Now they're being forced to reconsider that position, as a rising generation of students and professionals questions whether it's ever appropriate to kill an animal, even in the quest to make life better for others.
"This is not just about six dogs and not just about Tufts," says Theodora Capaldo, president of the New England Anti-Vivisection Society, a group that opposes all types of live-animal experimentation and one of the leading critics of Tufts in this controversy. "It's about the whole institution of animal research," she says, "and the need to find a better way."
Most people like animals and support scientific research. They're able to balance their beliefs by not thinking about both at the same time or by justifying the research in a moral hierarchy - say, animal research to help heal children. "But this particular experiment on this particular campus put those two values systems in direct conflict," says Rutberg. "We're sitting squarely on a fault line. It runs right through the campus, and we're trying to live with it."
With more people owning pets than ever before and a deepening appreciation of the human-animal bond, it has become increasingly difficult to separate the lab animal from the family pet. As one Tufts student says, "What's the difference between the dogs they do this to and the dogs they go home to?"
It is both unfortunate and appropriate that the issue exploded at Tufts, a veterinary school that prides itself as a leader in the humane treatment of animals. It was the nation's first veterinary college to eliminate so-called terminal labs, where professors would repeatedly anesthetize a dog so their students could practice live surgery before finally euthanizing the animal. (Students now learn from cadavers and field experience.) It is the first school in the country to set up a "client donor" program in which owners of deceased pets can will the bodies to science. The school even runs a bereavement hot line for pet owners.
The school's leaders have been earning this reputation for innovation and compassion since they opened the doors in 1979 on the campus of a defunct state mental institution in Grafton. In contrast to traditional farm-oriented education, the curriculum included a focus on small domestic animals and made humane care a priority. The school developed programs such as wildlife medicine, international veterinary medicine, and sports medicine for horses. In 1983, it established the school's most radical program - the Center for Animals and Public Policy. Students at the center tend not to be veterinary students per se but aspiring social-policy thinkers who plan to work in humane societies, wildlife organizations, and government, which helps to explain why the Tufts controversy was ignited by four students at the center.
Last fall, all four - Turner, Dana Zenko, Diana Goodrich, and Michelle Johnson - had volunteered for a program in which students walk dogs kept on campus for practice in noninvasive clinical exams. One day, they noticed some other dogs in a kennel marked "Do not touch." These animals, they discovered, were part of a study to learn whether loosening an external metal splint at a certain point in the healing process causes bones to heal faster and stronger. The process, called dynamization, had long been anecdotally observed but needed a definitive study, according to vet-school faculty members. Professors Randy Boudrieau and Karl Kraus planned to perform an osteotomy, or surgical fracture, on both hind legs of the anesthetized dogs, and treat one leg with a tight splint and the other with a loosened splint. The final step would require euthanizing the dogs so the researchers could stress-test the bones and microscopically examine the bone cells.
Something about this did not seem right to the four women, especially given their school's reputation. Recruiting about two dozen like-minded veterinary students, they met with the school's Animal Welfare Committee, a student-faculty group that oversees the well-being of animals on campus. The committee's chairwoman, Dr. Alicia Karas, a noted veterinary anesthesiologist, explained to the students the purpose of the research and the great lengths taken to minimize the dogs' pain. Later, she introduced them to Dr. Carl Kirker-Head, chairman of the campus's Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee, a federally mandated review body at every animal-research facility. He assured them the work had been reviewed and found to be humane.
As the meetings continued over several days, "everyone seemed excited to be working together," says Karas. Yet, a subtle misunderstanding had begun to develop. The faculty saw the meetings as a teaching opportunity - a chance to explain the complexities of animal research. The students saw the meetings as a chance to win the research dogs a reprieve. If only they could suggest another endpoint to the researchers - such as a bone scan or other high-tech detection device - they thought they might have a chance at saving the dogs' lives. In early December, Kirker-Head invited them to submit an alternative proposal, although, he warned them, its chances of success were slim. The students quickly assembled a proposal. Weeks passed; more meetings. By now, the campus had emptied for winter break.
Meanwhile, weekly X-rays were showing that the dogs' bones were healing faster than expected. If the researchers waited until the original late January date to euthanize them, they'd miss the opportunity to examine the cells at a critical time. Just before Christmas, Boudrieau told the veterinary school dean, Dr. Philip C. Kosch, that the research had to move forward. Kosch asked him to hold off until they could contact the students. But the students had gone home. At that point, the students received e-mails telling them their alternative proposal had been rejected and the original research was moving ahead. Then came an e-mail telling them that the dogs would be euthanized weeks ahead of schedule.
"We were in complete shock," says Turner. "We thought we had a whole other month to save the dogs. It felt like they were trying to do this while everyone was off campus."
Cutting their break short, Turner and her classmates returned to campus and, working with Capaldo at the anti-vivisection society, sent out a press release on December 29 describing the Tufts experiment in stark detail. They accused the center of stalling and "overintellectualizing" the issue while the students were desperately fighting to save the dogs' lives. "There's no blaze of glory here," Capal do would say later. "This isn't AIDS research. It's a stupid, tiny, painful experiment."
very day, untold numbers of animals are sacrificed throughout the United States in the name of progress and medical research. But for any number of reasons, this particular project - sacrificing some dogs to improve the lives of others - rippled across the nation in the press and on the Internet. "We got calls from newspapers, TV stations, radio stations; hundreds of e-mails from all over the world," says Turner. The university had to set up a hot line to record the torrent of complaints. A few days after the press release, the students got word that the dogs had been euthanized on New Year's Day. A second press release triggered a new round of attacks.
The veterinary school itself didn't help matters by declining to make the scientists available for comment, preferring to issue officially worded statements from its public affairs office. "They should have come out with their guns blazing," says Donna Marie Artuso, senior vice president for communications at the Foundation for Biomedical Research, an organization set up to defend animal experimentation. But research institutions often lay low in such situations, fearful of attracting the attention of militant activists. "Most universities see the animal- research issue as one big negative," says Andrew Rowan, chief of staff of the Humane Society of the United States. "No matter how much they explain things, typically the story comes out that 'those bad people are torturing dogs.'" (It took three weeks of negotiation before the veterinary school agreed to talk to a reporter for this article. Neither the dean, the two professors involved in the research, nor anyone from the fund-raising office was made available.)
After the second press release by activists, the anger built on both sides. While the student activists felt blindsided by the school's change of schedule, the vet-school faculty and other students felt betrayed by the publicity. Tufts had always settled its problems - especially delicate ones involving animal welfare - within the family. "The next thing we know, it's in the papers," says Jack Hawkes, a veterinary student who was among those originally questioning the research. "There were feelings of betrayal all around."
Those feelings peaked on the evening of January 5, when Kosch, the dean, presided over two meetings to bring students up to date. Veterinary students who originally had sided with the four students from the center by now had parted company over the issue of going public. Security was tightened: The volunteer dog-walking program had been suspended, and students and staff were required to display IDs. Some faculty members voiced fears of being targeted by extremist groups. Students worried about a rise in tuition, fearing the controversy would damage the veterinary school's endowment. As Kosch addressed those issues at the meeting, he became visibly angry, Turner remembers. He spoke about a benefactor who said she was withholding a major donation. Finally, says Turner, Kosch turned to her and demanded: "'I want to know what you're going to do about that donor.'"
"I said I'd be happy to call donors," Turner says she responded. "But not until you're prepared to make changes."
wo major periods of change have marked the modern history of human-animal relations - both during times of scientific and social upheaval. The first came during the Victorian era, when Charles Darwin, tossing aside the biblical notion that man stood apart from all other species, posited that animals were our distant evolutionary cousins. At the same time, abolitionism and women's suffrage were redefining the idea of who deserves basic rights. Even the new fashion of middle-class pet ownership was causing people to soften their attitudes toward animals.
One outcome was the first blossoming of the animal-welfare movement, many of whose leaders included Bostonians. In 1868, George T. Angell founded the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. (The MSPCA's animal hospital in Jamaica Plain bears his name.) In 1895, several prominent Bostonians, horrified by the live-animal dissections taking place at Harvard Medical School, founded the New England Anti-Vivisection Society.
People brushed aside such sentiments throughout much of the 20th century, as science became the secular god. In the 1970s, however, the civil rights and women's movements reopened people's minds to the questions of equity, and scientific studies on language and cognition revealed some animals to be more cognizant, more "human," if you will, than had been thought.
The result was the opening of a new moral frontier in human-animal relations. It wasn't enough to fight racism and sexism; now it became important to oppose "speciesism" as well. A new generation of militant activists arose. One group founded in 1980, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, caused a national scandal when, in 1981, it sent an undercover operative into a government-sponsored lab to photograph the inhumane treatment of test monkeys. Two years later, PETA exposed the Pentagon's notorious dog-wound experiments, in which researchers planned to shoot dogs with high-velocity weapons in order to study the injuries; the controversy forced Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger to halt the project. Some groups, such as the Animal Liberation Front, took even more confrontational measures. Just last September, a group calling itself the Animal Liberation Front claimed responsibility for vandalizing a lab at Louisiana State University researching the effects of pollutants on animals, causing $250,000 in damage.
In contrast, the New England Anti-Vivisection Society adheres to its founders' civilized methods. "We have a radical philosophy, but our approach is always professional and reasonable," says Capaldo. She points out that in the early 1980s, when activists were up in arms about the notorious Draize test - in which manufacturers would put cosmetics and detergents into rabbits' eyes to test for inflammation - the anti-vivisection society gave Tufts more than $100,000 to develop non-animal alternatives, such as cell cultures. After Tufts veterinary students lobbied against the terminal dog labs, the society spent $18,000 to offer Tufts students an alternative - supervised surgical training at animal-rescue hospitals and clinics. If the Tufts veterinary school is a humane institution today, it is at least partially because the society was minding the university's business.
obody would doubt that veterinarians love animals, but it's always been a tough love. You couldn't go to vet school if you didn't have the stomach for blood and dissection, and it was, after all, a rather conservative profession, born in the need to care for farm animals.
As Americans moved away from farms, vets became more small-animal centered. Today, a majority of the vets in practice work primarily on family pets, according to Holly Cheever, vice president of the Association of Veterinarians for Animal Rights. The profession has also become strikingly more female. A recent census of the profession - a 1999 survey published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association - found that 70 percent of veterinary students were women. The result, says attorney Steven M. Wise, president of the Center for the Expansion of Fundamental Rights, is a "kinder, gentler profession." At last summer's annual meeting of the American Veterinary Medical Association, the membership challenged the all-male, middle-aged executive board on several animal-protection issues. Members succeeded in passing a resolution to investigate more humane housing for pigs. "There's a real change going on - a bucking of the good old boys at the top," says Cheever.
That change has also been happening at veterinary colleges. A handful have followed Tufts's lead and eliminated terminal surgery labs. The newest of the country's 28 vet schools - at Western University of Health Sciences in Pomona, California - permits no animals to be harmed in any way during veterinary training. The school enforces the ban in a clever way: Most of its animals that the students examine belong either to the faculty or the students themselves.
Basic research has been evolving as well. The number of dogs used in all laboratory research has declined dramatically since the mid-'70s - from more than 400,000 annually to about 70,000 today, according to Rowan of the Humane Society. Some of that reduction was in response to social pressure. Some resulted from legal and economic changes: When, in the 1980s, Massachusetts and other states repealed pound seizure laws that allowed pounds to sell animals to researchers, labs had to start buying expensive dogs bred for research use.
Scientists developed substitutes for animals, such as software that mimics biological processes and plasticized models of animal organs. Furthermore, as genetics becomes the centerpiece of medicine, researchers are shifting from companion-sized animals to laboratory-engineered mice to study disease.
Yet even those changes don't satisfy animal advocates, who point out that millions of animals are still sacrificed in laboratories every year. Many are the same species as our pets. If the animal-human bond is so precious, those advocates argue, why should we be killing animals at all? "You'd never euthanize some human patients to help others," says Wise.
Today's activists say that not only should researchers minimize the number of animals they use, they should treat the test subjects almost as human patients. At Tufts, for example, Tara Turner and others suggest that rather than surgically fracturing the legs of healthy dogs, the researchers could have tested their methods on dogs that came into the hospital with legs already broken. They could have splinted some legs the standard way, others the new way, and compared the results. Barring that, at least they could have found a way to avoid killing them.
Of course, it's not so simple. Tufts faculty members argue that to perform the experiment on accident victims wouldn't have yielded valid results. The research needed to be precise, scientific, measurable. An accidental leg break involves bone-splintering, soft-tissue injury, nerve damage, and bleeding - factors that would obscure the test results. (The results of the study are not yet available, because the cell studies are still being analyzed.) Euthanizing the dogs was necessary, the scientists argue, because it enabled the researchers to calibrate the strength of the healing and examine it at the cellular level. Even the act of performing the surgery on both hind legs of each dog was done to minimize suffering, says Dr. Angeline Warner, a dean at the vet school, since it allowed using six dogs instead of 12.
"We treat animals with the gentlest, most understanding care that we can," says Karas, the Tufts anesthesiologist. After all, she says, the veterinarian's mission is to reduce the amount of harm or pain to every animal, whether it lives in an apartment, on a farm, or in a lab.
MOST PEOPLE WOULD FIND it a stretch to insist that lab animals should be treated as human patients. But Wise argues exactly that, saying that while dogs don't have the same rights as humans, they should have the basic right not to be "assaulted" in the name of medical research.
But there's one piece missing here. When doctors do medical research on humans, they're able to perform relatively safe clinical trials in which they give the test medicine to one group of people and a placebo or standard medicine to another. But they only do so after the medicine has first been safety-tested on animals. They also test surgical procedures on animals first.
In the case of animal research, though, who would take the medicine for the first safety test? Who would undergo that test operation? Which species, if you practice reverence for all life, deserves to be the guinea pig for the others?
"We look forward to the day when we can put an end to using animals in research," says Rowan, "but for now we're focusing on achievable goals." Those goals include promoting the "Three R's" outlined in the Animal Welfare Act, the federal law that regulates the care and use of lab animals - replacing or reducing animal experimentation wherever possible and refining the research to minimize suffering.
Even Western University of Health Sciences, the veterinary college whose founding principles include "Reverence for Life," has left itself a loophole. While it forbids any animals to be harmed in the course of teaching, faculty members are permitted to do terminal research on animals. Like many in the research community, they're caught between the dictates of traditional science and an evolving respect for the integrity of animals.
"We may have to make a conscious decision that there's a limit to our need or greed for new knowledge," says Dr. Lara Rasmussen, director of surgery and clinical skills at Western.
The students are walking the dogs again at Tufts, though in a decidedly more restricted way. They have to present their IDs at the kennel and wait while an attendant brings the dogs out to them. They're given exactly 45 minutes to return with the dogs. They're preparing a list of demands to give to the college, including an end to terminal experiments on dogs and cats, more openness about research, and efforts to find non-animal research alternatives.
Karas has been thinking "compulsively" about the issues that have been raised over the past several months. She hopes to organize a conference to teach the public about the university's mission and to reexamine its policies toward research. She admits to feeling overwhelmed, even conflicted - publicly defending her institution, yet agonizing over the moral ambiguities of animal research. But as an anesthesiologist she spends countless hours in the hospital finding ways to prevent animal pain.
"Now I'm asked to be an ethicist," she says. "And I'm finding it so hard."