A Brave Thing To Do

In yesterday’s Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, a second year medical student at The Medical College of Wisconsin (MCW), Jessica Weaver, wrote a letter to the editor objecting to MCW’s continued backward use of live animals during physiology classes.  MCW is now one of the last medical colleges in the United States using this outdated, inhumane practice.  As a board member of the Wisconsin Humane Society, I’ve been dealing with this for the past couple of years.  What has been particularly irksome about MCW during this has been has their permitting their spokesperson, Richard Katschke, to be Karl Rove-like in defending the use of live dogs and responding to the public outcry.  Richard Katschke has been malicious, smug and mean-spirited during all of this. I have been surprised how both the board of regents and the President of MCW, Mike Bolger, has allowed Katschke to be such a belligerent representative for MCW.

Here is Jessica’s Letter to the Editor:

As another class of medical students arrives at the Medical College of Wisconsin, the controversy over the school’s use of live animals in its physiology labs is renewed. While this practice always raises discussion in the medical community and among members of the Wisconsin Humane Society and other animal protection advocates, many people in Milwaukee do not feel this debate is important to them. This couldn’t be further from the truth.

I am a second-year medical student at MCW, and I remember how shocked I was when I learned in January of last year that my school continues this outdated practice. I had strong objections to a set of labs that would result in the deaths of approximately 50 frogs, 36 pigs, 40 rats and numerous rabbits - all to restate points already made clear in our lectures and textbooks. I found this attitude that life is expendable to be entirely contrary to MCW’s tradition of educating physicians in understanding, empathy and compassion.

I presented the physiology faculty with a petition signed by 90 students requesting an alternative, but this reasonable request was refused. When I presented the petition to the course director, he agreed that the labs were not necessary to learn any of the physiological concepts, but he was clear that they would continue.

The school’s decision last year to switch from using live dogs to using live pigs suggests that MCW’s physiology department will listen to the public, but it missed the fundamental objection to this practice, which is an antiquated exception to the otherwise exceptional education MCW offers its students.

Simply put, no animal of any kind needs to be sacrificed. Several students told me they felt exactly the way I did but were afraid they would be punished if they said so. If students are unwilling or unable to take a stand, the community must do so instead.

Only eight of the 154 medical schools in the country still use live animals in their medical education, and only five use them for physiology. All other schools have switched from using live animals to using computer models, simulations and real patient observation. They have made that change because doing so offers their students a better education. The inability of the physiology department to offer modern laboratory exercises that focus on human physiology is causing the students’ education to suffer, and the community suffers as a result.

All of MCW’s students rotate through Froedtert, the Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin and other area hospitals. They are responsible for much of the doctor-patient interaction. Many of these students choose to stay in the area after graduation and become responsible for providing medical care to the people of Milwaukee.

The physicians I have met here are caring, compassionate men and women who have dedicated their lives to saving and improving the lives of others. They serve the people of Milwaukee. To enable them to provide the best possible care, they should be equipped with the best tools, including a modern education. The physiology faculty’s pride in the continuation of this ancient tradition is as illogical as being proud of having dial-up Internet access in our digital cable world.

The number of schools continuing to use live animals is dropping rapidly, and if MCW does not change, it will become the only school that uses them. This would portray the school as backwards and old-fashioned and could do unfair and unnecessary damage to the school’s reputation. As a result, the school and its hospitals would have trouble attracting the best physicians to the area.

The community needs to speak out and stop this practice.

Jessica Weaver is a second-year medical student at the Medical College of Wisconsin.