While this appears to be an extreme idea, it would be highly mistaken to think it so. As a matter of fact, it would be unfair to disagree with it before getting to see the macro-picture of the current training approaches in Kenya and Africa at large.
It was in October 2007, when I was first introduced to my anatomy class in vet school. One of the adjunct subjects of the day was a topic in physiology that deals with lab animal restraint, sampling, and euthanasia.
The instructor called the class of 120 ambitious young men and women who looked forward to graduating as veterinary doctors. Shortly afterwards, the newest members of our class were introduced: two lab mice in a cage.
From the look of it, the mice appeared at peace but from an experienced eye, the amount of stress was unimaginable. Anyway, to cut the long story short, after a brief introduction to different restraint methods, the ultimate euthanasia approach was cervical dislocation and decapitation. There was dead silence when the instructor asked whether there was anyone willing to volunteer to euthanise the poor mice. After serious deliberations and hesitations, one of my classmates mastered the courage and ‘euthanised’ the animals.
I say this in quotes because in no ordinary situation can an inexperienced hand adequately euthanise an animal by cervical dislocation and do it in a painless manner. This image stuck with many of my classmates throughout vet school and this incident may have contributed to losing about 40 per cent of the class by the second year of vet school. This is just one of the many incidents throughout vet school where demonstrations and experiments were carried out using animals.
I do not downplay the need to have hands-on experience during training of veterinary professionals or other animal science-related professions. However, I take issue with two things in this setup. One, in the story told earlier, a class of 120 students is bundled around a small lab table to watch one instructor demonstrating handling procedures on two lab mice. Does something sound wrong with this picture? How effective is the training supposed to be? How much hands-on experience is this expected to achieve? The answer is less than 10 per cent of the students actually get the intended knowledge at that setting, which is similar to what happens in most of our teaching institutions (primary, secondary, colleges and universities).
Well, the solution is simple: why not just have more animals to play around with in the name of learning? While that sounds like a rosy idea, it would not only be extremely expensive and economically unwise to maintain these animals but also ethically inappropriate to slaughter animals en-masse in the guise of learning.
Secondly, once these animals are used for whatever one-off experiment, they are often euthanized. This is because some of the procedures carried out on these animals are invasive and thus the lab animals cannot continue to thrive post the trauma inflicted on them. Every normal human being who has ever suffered an ailment knows fully well how bad a small wound or ache can feel. Now, to imagine inflicting that much pain on a helpless animal in the name of passing knowledge, and yet not achieving the expected knowledge transfer means that there is definitely something wrong with this approach.
Basic arithmetic and reason dictate that an additive or synergistic process must always have a positive end result. From the look of things, this approach doesn’t adhere to this basic rule of life. Sticking to our old ways of doing things while the rest of the world is miles ahead in using alternative methods of training with the help of technology is somewhat perturbing.
Even more eerie is the argument that we do not know the efficacy of these new methods, while tonnes of research exists showing how more effective these alternative methods are compared to the old ways. It’s not a question of whether or not something is broken and whether we should fix it. It’s a realisation that fixing our education system as far as animal use is concerned is long overdue.
The current system is faulty and needs a major overhaul. This can only be effected by the largest consumer of the workforce generated by these training processes and institutions – the government. The best approach thus remains a rigorous reform of the curriculum in learning institutions and policy reforms to replace live animals with alternatives for teaching and examination processes.