On the pastoral campus of the nation's military medical school in Bethesda, the Department of Defense is about to open a firing range where scores of dogs and other animals will be shot with high-powered weapons so surgeons and scientists can study their wounds.
The first bullets will not be fired before next month, but already, the cries of protest from animal welfare advocates are ricocheting around the Capitol. Three members of Congress say they will ask the secretary of Defense to block what they call a "shocking waste of animal lives and tax monies" by cutting off funds for the project.
Meanwhile, the sponsors of the officially-named "Wound Laboratory"--constructed for about $70,000 at the federally funded Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences (USUHS)--say they need the laboratory to train aspiring doctors for battlefield medicine and to research better ways to treat combat wounds.
Col. Richard Simmonds, the veterinarian in charge of the university's animals, says he recognizes the sensitivity of the issue. As Dan Buck, an aide to Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.), noted, "It's not the kind of program they'd do slide shows about before the local Rotary Club."
But Simmonds says that wound research and training is both legitimate and indispensable to the university, which turns out approximately 150 new military doctors each year. The doctors, he said, should be "introduced to wound care here, rather than on the first wave of casualties off the battlefield."
The Bethesda lab would become the fifth military facility in the nation to conduct wound research on dogs or other animals, including labs in San Francisco, San Antonio, Tex., Edgewood, Md. and the District of Columbia, according to Simmonds. The latter two, however, are not using animals currently, he said.
The Bethesda facility is building a 50-foot sound-proofed firing range on the school's ground floor--an area once used for VIP-parking. Here, according to Simmonds, as many as 80 dogs per year will be shot in order to train seniors in a course called Operational Emergency Medicine.
The dogs, most of them medium-sized mongrels, are to be purchased from dealers for $80 to $130 per dog, said Simmonds. The dealers, who are licensed by the Department of Agriculture, get the dogs from animal shelters where they are already scheduled to be put to sleep. The university used about 920 dogs in various research and training projects last fiscal year. Simmonds hopes to reuse on the range some dogs already slated for other research.
The dogs are to be placed in kennels in pairs and two days later have their hind legs clipped in preparation for the wound lab.
They are then anesthetized with a drug called Pentabarbital, and hooked up to intravenous tubes to provide fluids. Current plans call for the dogs to be shot with a 9 mm Swedish Mauser in their hind quarters from a range of 12 to 15 feet while suspended in nylon mesh slings.
The high velocity weapon makes a wound like that received in combat. Then the dog is to be taken to the laboratory, where four students under a surgeon's supervision will examine each animal to learn to recognize live and dying tissues, and to treat the wound with the least damage to the vital areas.
The dogs, according to Simmonds, will "never wake up." They'll be killed with an overdose of Pentabarbital while still on the laboratory table. "We've done nothing more than move the site of the euthanasia from the animal shelter to the teaching lab," said Simmonds, who added that he believes the dog's death there has far more "ethical value" than its death at a shelter.
But animal advocates and more than 300 physicians, who have signed a petition opposing the lab's opening, vehemently disagree. Alex Pacheco, head of the Washington-based People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, took the fight to Capitol Hill, where Reps. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.), Thomas Foglietta (D-Pa.) and Schroeder yesterday began seeking signatures on a letter decrying the "expansion of experimentation on live animals by the military."
Los Angeles physician Donald E. Doyle, an Army surgeon in Vietnam and avowed animal-welfare advocate, said the effect of combat-type wounds is already "well-documented and well-known," and that training on one dog cannot prepare a medical student as a battlefield surgeon. "I am not saying no research should be done or that the people doing it are inhuman ogres," said Doyle. "I would bet my house that they are sincere. I just disagree."
Simmonds says that wounds caused by high velocity weapons, the type used in combat, are not like those medical students see in emergency rooms where most gunshot victims are seen.
But Simmonds recognizes he is fighting an uphill battle. "It is a very difficult subject," said the veterinarian. "It's like the 'have you stopped beating your wife yet' question. There's no way to answer it and come out ahead."