ISLAMABAD: A senior official said this week the government would introduce reforms within ten days to put an end to the practice of using live animals to teach surgical skills at veterinary schools, after viral videos sparked outrage over ‘inhumane’ practices at universities across Pakistan.
Since last month, videos have circulated on social media showing animals in various states of distress after being operated upon by veterinary students. Activists and members of the public have widely condemned the practices and called for action.
At veterinary schools around the world, the practice of using live animals to teach surgery has been on the decline in the last decade.
"We are going to roll out thorough reforms in a week or ten days to put an end to surgeries and experimentation on live animals in all our universities," Salman Sufi, head of Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif's Strategic Reforms Unit, told Arab News on Thursday.
"The present practice of students training on live healthy animals is cruel and we are working on alternatives to educate our veterinary students in line with best international practices," he added. "The proposed reforms may include house jobs and paid internships for vet students to learn the necessary skills like incision and surgery in teaching hospitals."
Arab News interviewed about a dozen veterinary students belonging to Arid Agriculture University in Rawalpindi, the University of Veterinary and Animal Sciences in Lahore, Riphah International University in Islamabad and Sindh Agriculture University, Tandojam.
All students and graduates interviewed said they were aware that surgeries and experiments were performed at their institute on live animals but that anesthesia was administered.
“This is a common practice in veterinary departments of all universities,” Muhammad Amir Hamza, a graduate of the University of Veterinary and Animal Sciences, told Arab News on Wednesday.
He said that surgeries were performed on dogs, cats and rabbits to spay or neuter them and to deal with medical issues. At least twenty percent of the animals died during or after the procedures, he added.
“Students take care of the animals after the surgeries, keep them in shelters and leave them back on streets after full recovery,” Hamza said. “We now feel that universities should help students conduct surgeries on dummies because experimentation on live animals is cruel and inhumane.”
Some university students explained that students had to identify and arrange animals themselves for surgeries and had to pool in money to feed the animals, with the whole process costing over Rs30,000 ($150) per surgery. Veterinary universities, they said, did not even have the budgets to arrange animals for them.
“Our teachers divide students into groups of eight to ten to perform these surgeries,” Asim Akhtar*, a student at Riphah International University, Lahore, told Arab News. “It is the responsibility of students to arrange a stray dog for surgery and then bear all expenses for experimentation, treatment and feed.”
Akhtar said the students had to take care of the animals post-surgery also, and any medical complications or casualty could have an adverse effect on their grades.
Afnan Abdullah*, a student at the Sindh Agriculture University, said many students had complained to teachers about the "unethical and cruel" procedures but were told it was an “important practice to learn.”
“Even if an animal is killed during a surgery, you don’t need to worry about it,” he said, quoting one of his course instructors. “If a life is wasted today due to experimentation, keep in mind that you will be saving thousands of lives tomorrow when you learn how to do it properly.”
Wasif Shamshad, a veterinary graduate from Pakistan now pursuing a postgraduate degree in Public Health at the University of Northampton in England, said students were taught incision, surgery and stitching on dummies in the United Kingdom.
“Here in the UK, veterinary students are given three years to do practicals at teaching hospitals before they qualify for their degrees,” he told Arab News. “In Pakistan, they are neither allowed house jobs nor paid internships in civil veterinary hospitals to learn the skills.”
Shamshad defended the practice of performing surgeries on live animals in Pakistani universities as vital and shared his own teaching experience at a veterinary department of a Pakistani university, saying strict protocols were followed during such operations and animals were given post-surgery treatment.
Nadeem Malik, a spokesperson for Arid Agriculture University, Rawalpindi, said surgery on small animals was part of the curriculum for the Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM) degree, and students initially trained using animal parts bought from slaughter houses.
“Students are given practical training of surgery on animals under the supervision of well-trained and competent teachers as per international standards,” he told Arab News.
Malik said the university’s surgical department was working in collaboration with the Rawalpindi district administration’s trap, neuter, vaccinate and release program that was in line with international standards and ensured the welfare of dogs.
“Under this program, surgeries [to neuter and spay] are performed only on stray dogs, and this practice has been widely hailed by both the district administration and the public,” he said. “Some people have levelled baseless allegations against the university and veterinary faculty for their vested interests which are hurting the prestige of the university, especially the veterinary faculty.”
Animal rights activist Sarah Javed Khan said surgeries on live animals should not be part of the DVM curriculum.
“There is a need to update our animal cruelty laws,” she said, “and hold all those accountable who are involved in this inhumane and callous practice at veterinary departments.”
Names marked with * have been changed to protect identities