This essay carries a warning that some of the content may distress some readers. It contains references to animal cruelty and descriptions of such.
On an ordinary Saturday morning most Melburnians are going about their routines: taking the kids to Auskick, dragging the trolley around the market, having a hangover-curing slap-up breaky at the local cafe.
It’s not so ordinary though, for a posse of young doctors being led down a chilling bluestone alley in Fitzroy. Tall buildings ensure it’s always dark here, regardless of the season. It’s grim, a bit “Jack the Ripper”-ish. Most of them dread what they’re here for. The instructor buzzes at an unmarked door. A woman wearing a white boiler suit ushers them in and asks them to change into surgical scrubs.
“No phones or cameras allowed,” she says.
Each one of these doctors hopes to become a surgeon. The course they are attending is a prerequisite to surgical training. They’ve been cautioned it involves “performing surgical skills on a live animal.”1
They enter a laboratory, confronted by a scene more like an episode of “NCIS” than an operating theatre. Six sleeping dogs lie. They are greyhounds, alive but asleep. Unnaturally poised on their backs, all legs and barrel chests, they are partially covered by green surgical drapes. The rhythmic hiss of ventilators punctuates the silence. There are no machines that go “ping”, nor is there the hustle and bustle of nurses and anaesthetists. Just ventilated dogs on slabs.
The participants feel uncomfortable. The greyhounds probably feel worse. They’re asleep, but not under complete veterinary anaesthetic. This means they have had a shot of something to make them sleep, most likely ketamine, but not ongoing pain relief. Their chests are cut open. Lungs inflate and deflate to the rhythm of the hissing ventilator. Hearts beat openly. There is no haemodynamic monitoring like in real surgery. It is likely the greyhounds are in pain, but the absence of monitoring means their stress is not being measured and so, it is ignored.
There are many things wrong in this laboratory, the foremost being: why are live greyhounds being used as subjects in a human trauma course? As a doctor, I believe this practice is unnecessary and has been superseded by other technologies. As an animal lover, I am dismayed by the cruelty. As the owner of a retired greyhound, I am angered by the attitude that these gentle, noble dogs are deemed commodities, disposable after their life in racing ends.
Such is the life of the racing greyhound. Gambling associated with greyhound racing, hare-coursing and hurdling has resulted in explosive breeding. Approximately 20,000 greyhounds are bred annually in Australia. Racing lifespan is, on average, one to two years, depending on success and injury. So what happens to all these dogs?
On the upside, greyhound adoption and rescue programs operate throughout Australia, but they only manage the tip of the iceberg, at best four or five percent of greyhounds bred. My dog is one of the lucky ones, having been rehoused through the Victorian Greyhound Adoption Program, GAP.
Successful dogs and bitches will be kept for breeding. Males have semen frozen for artificial insemination. The dog that sired mine has over five hundred recorded offspring. Less fortunate are the bitches that may become “puppy factories”. Some greyhounds become canine blood donors, and are later adopted out.
On the downside, approximately 17,000 greyhounds are killed per year in Australia2 however, as a community we condone greyhound racing as family-friendly entertainment, irrespective of barbaric practices associated with the industry.
The disconcerting truth is most greyhounds are destroyed, some humanely, some not. Vets employed at the races concede to euthanasing up to four dogs per meet3, knowing that those injured are considered worthless.
In an interview on ABC’s Radio National (2012), vet Ted Humphries said: “If we don’t humanely euthanase them, then (owners will) often inhumanely euthanase them by shooting, hanging, gassing, drowning … I think hammers occasionally.”3 The carcasses are often illegally dumped in mass graves and rivers, their ears removed to hide identifying tattoos. Numerous puppies are culled before ever reaching adulthood.2
Some dogs deemed too slow by Australian standards are sold and transported to China, Macau and South Korea, ostensibly to race2 but actually many of these dogs end up as meat for human consumption4 having been killed inhumanely. Most Australians baulk at the idea of eating dogs, especially given dogs are some of our favourite pets; however, in countries where poverty reigns, dog-meat is a highly prized delicacy. It makes sense: dogs can breed rapidly and are a cheap source of protein.
Greyhounds have also been sold into scientific and medical research facilities, where scores are killed each year. Of particular note is the use of live greyhounds for human trauma resuscitation courses.
The Royal Australasian College of Surgeons (RACS) is a Melbourne based institution that oversees training and accreditation of surgeons throughout Australasia. Basic surgical training dictates junior doctors complete a course on Early Management of Severe Trauma (EMST). This course aims to teach optimal trauma management in the first one to two hours post-injury.5,6
One session of the two-and-a-half-day course, known as “Animal lab”, involves practising procedures on “anaesthetised” greyhounds. RACS argues it is important to use “real tissue” rather than cadavers or mannequins. It seems that in the name of saving human trauma sufferers, hundreds of greyhounds are sacrificed.
McEwan and Skandakumar (2013)2 state: “Under current Australian anti-cruelty statutes, killing a dog is not an offence unless the act of killing causes unnecessary suffering and pain.”
I would argue that undergoing invasive procedures in a human trauma course constitutes suffering, particularly if a veterinarian-supervised anaesthetic is not administered.
Dr G is an emergency physician and EMST instructor, originally from the U.K. He says Australia is the only country using live greyhounds for teaching. In the U.S. sheep are used, as opposed to Europe where no animals are used. Most countries are moving away from using any live animal for such a purpose. Dr G believes most of the procedures can be adequately taught on mannequins, simulators, or at worst, animal parts. He also teaches Advanced Paediatric Life Support (APLS) where similar procedures are performed on child mannequins successfully. While the use of “real tissue” aids authenticity, he argues the setup in EMST is unrealistic.
“It’s an anaethetised dog, not a human. There’s no monitoring to simulate a real resuscitation. The dog’s chest wall is about one centimetre thick, nothing like a real person’s,” he tells me.
All of the procedures taught on the dogs can be performed more skilfully and safely under ultrasound guidance in emergency departments and this is now common practice. Some of the procedures have been superseded by new techniques entirely.
Dr G stopped instructing “Animal lab” as he could not condone it. He has concerns that the dogs’ anaesthesia and monitoring is inadequate. More than half of the available EMST instructors refuse to teach “Animal lab” on moral grounds, and most evaluations by participants are negative. He reports many participants are appalled but feel they can’t speak up for fear of not being accepted into surgical training.
Dr H practised as a surgeon in the U.K. and Australia, but is now an emergency physician. She previously instructed EMST. From a surgeon’s perspective, Dr H concurs that using live animals gives the experience of real, live tissue. The warmth, suppleness, and bleeding cannot be replicated on a cadaver or any currently available model. Like Dr G, she chose not to teach “Animal lab” commenting, “No one likes it.” While she can see why RACS emphasise it, her opinion is: “It’s outdated, and people shouldn’t be coerced into doing it.” She believes all of the procedures taught in EMST can be taught by other means, in particular high-fidelity simulation.
Dr H states, “The most important part is the decision making process. The procedures themselves are not difficult. Hi-fi simulation can be just as good as an animal.”
On the RACS website, eighty-one EMST courses are scheduled for 2014.6 Using four to eight greyhounds per course, this equates to 300 to 600 greyhounds being unnecessarily traumatised and euthanased per year. Only two centres offer “non-animal” EMST courses where mannequins are used. These courses are heavily in demand with waiting-lists of over two years.
The RACS and EMST web pages (2014) do not openly state they use live greyhounds. Only a single tick box exists on EMST’s application form: “I am aware that one component of the course may involve me needing to perform surgical skills procedures on a live animal.”7 Dr G says many participants arrive unaware, and are only cautioned before the session. Why is it so clandestine?
Dr G states, “It’s all very hush-hush because they probably don’t want animal rights activists protesting outside the door.”
Is this an admission that what is being done to these greyhounds is morally and ethically wrong?
It’s lunchtime when the group of surgical hopefuls emerge from the “Animal lab” but nobody feels like eating. Human nature must dictate it is reprehensible to be killing dogs on an otherwise ordinary Saturday morning.
Procedures completed, boxes ticked, the greyhounds will now be euthanased. Their jobs done, bodies wrecked, the disposable dogs succumb to lethal injections, “the green dream”. They will never bounce, scamper, run at top speed or chase bunnies again. Thrown out like last night’s takeaway containers, deemed too dirty and broken to retrieve.
Note: The writer has not participated in, nor taught the EMST course. All descriptions are based on interviews conducted with Doctors G and H who are deemed reliable sources. Their names have been withheld for confidentiality reasons.
- RACS 2014 EMST application form http://www.surgeons.org/for-health-professionals/register-courses-events/skills-training-courses/emst/emst-registration-australia/ accessed 16th May 2014
- McEwan A. Skandakumar K. The welfare of greyhounds in Australian racing: has the industry run its course? Australian Animal Protection Law Journal Dec 2011:15 July 2013 version
- McDonald T. The quick and the dead. Transcript from ABC Radio National program Sun Nov 11, 2012. http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/backgroundbriefing/2012-11-11/4355398#transcript accessed 16th May 2014
- Against Animal Cruelty Tasmania website 2012 http://www.aact.org.au/greyhounds.htm accessed 16th May 2014
- RACS homepage http://www.surgeons.org/ accessed 16th May 2014
- EMST webpage http://www.surgeons.org/for-health-professionals/register-courses-events/skills-training-courses/emst/ accessed 16th May 2014
- EMST timetable 2014 http://www.surgeons.org/media/20027295/2013-05-13_lst_emst_2014_schedule_provider_aus.pdf accessed 16th May 2014