The demand, tucked into the National Defense Authorization Act of 2013, marks the first time Congress has ordered the Pentagon to provide a detailed plan to start relying less on animals and more on simulators. The military must also specify whether removing animals from training sessions could lead to a “reduction in the competency of combat medical personnel,” according to the bill.
“Congress now acknowledges that it is wrong to harm animals for crude medical training exercises if modern and superior alternatives are available,” said Justin Goodman, the director of laboratory investigations for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA, which has been fighting the use of animals in combat medic training since the early 1980s. “If the military is too entrenched to make changes on their own, Congress is going to bring pressure to bear and force that change.”
The military’s use of animals for medical training dates back to the Vietnam war, but it drew relatively little scrutiny until the summer of 1983, when activists caught wind of a training exercise planned at a facility in Bethesda. The plan to shoot dozens of anesthetized dogs strung on nylon mesh slings in an indoor, sound-proof firing range enraged animal activists and some lawmakers.
Dog lovers protested in front of the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, one with a leashed dog wearing a shirt with a bull’s eye. They took their rage to the home of then Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, demanding to know how he could stand for the training as the owner of an adorable collie named Kilty.
Weinberger acted swiftly, issuing a one-sentence statement saying he had “directed that no dogs be shot for medical experimentation or training.” But to the consternation of animal activists, Weinberger did nothing to spare goats.
The military was not alone in using animals to prepare medics for trauma. Thomas Poulton, a Texas anesthesiologist who served in the U.S. Navy Medical Corps , said many civilian trauma training courses used dogs when he was a young physician three decades ago. He found wounding animals during courses jarring, but not particularly formative.
“In terms of actually learning skills, eye-hand coordination or learning much intellectually, it didn’t really add anything I wasn’t already learning,” said Poulton.
In recent years, civilian trauma courses have largely abandoned the use of animals, chiefly because human simulators have come a long way, spurting blood-like liquid and reacting much like the human body when it’s wounded. Poulton says civilian schools have ditched live-tissue training in part due to ethical concerns.