Learning Without Killing:
A Guide To Conscientious Objection

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Learning Without Killing:
A Guide To Conscientious Objection

Dr. Andrew Knight interviewed by Claudette Vaughan, Abolitionist Online

Abolitionist: How does one become a conscientious objector for students in universities today or schools if one wants to take a stance against dissection in the classroom?

Andrew: The steps likely to maximise a students’ chances of success are outlined in detail in my book Learning Without Killing: A Guide to Conscientious Objection, which is freely downloadable from my site www.LearningWithoutKilling.info. Briefly, however, students should first make their enquiries about animal use discreetly or anonymously, before they are enrolled. Some universities have unofficial—or, very occasionally, overt—policies of excluding students from admission if they suspect the student may have animal protection sympathies.

If harmful animal use is a required component of the course then students are faced with two choices. They can either go elsewhere, or gain admission and once enrolled, begin an active campaign for humane teaching methods. If successful, they will probably not only save large numbers of animal lives annually, but will also have opened up a new campus or course for students with animal protection sympathies who would like to achieve a biomedical degree.

After admission, a key requirement is keeping one’s marks safely above pass level. Unlike people campaigning from the outside, or academic staff who may be fired, enrolled students have enormous ethical and—potentially—legal powers to insist that universities provide them with an education that is respectful of—and in particular, does not discriminate against—their conscientiously-held beliefs against harming or killing animals. The only way universities can get rid of such students is by failing them, and, although minor manipulation of grades by hostile academics is likely, any major manipulation would be so obvious as to be challengeable. Hence it’s very important to keep one’s grades safely above pass level.

Other than that, it’s simply a matter of making formal requests for humane learning and assessment methods, being prepared to present detailed information about the alternatives available (resources are available at www.LearningWithoutKilling.info), being prepared to go all the way up the academic chain of command, and then outside the university to the media and lawyers, if necessary. The key personal requirements for success are professionalism and persistence.

Unfortunately many students will face severe opposition from faculty and students apparently mentally stuck in the dark ages. The key to survival is being prepared. That includes learning about the issue beforehand, and making preparations in advance. Much preparation is mental. Students need to be prepared to endure hostility from fellow students and academics, with very little support. They will need to carefully work out what animal use they are and are not prepared to engage in, and what steps they are prepared to take if their requests for alternatives are denied. They need to be prepared for severe provocation from their ethically challenged peers, and for conflict with their faculties. Most students only start learning about humane alternatives once the labs are already underway, however, and despite poor preparation many still go on to succeed. But prior preparation greatly increases the chances of success, and greatly decreases the stress.

Abolitionist: What obstacles did you yourself encounter along the way Andrew?

Andrew: I had two major disputes. The first was when a classmate and I refused to kill animals during physiology experiments. Students demonstrated a variety of basic physiological principles on sheep (mostly), rats and toads, by injecting various drugs, severing nerves and forcing the sheep to breathe various gases, or by occluding air or blood supplies entirely. At the end of each experiment the surviving sheep would be killed. The academic in charge of this unit had been conducting animal research for many years, and was opposed to the concept of humane alternatives.

In this case, after unsuccessfully appealing for alternatives up the academic chain of command, I was forced to initiate legal action against Murdoch University, and to start to expose its curricular animal killing through the mass media.

This rapidly resulted in success: Murdoch restored the marks I had lost, and established a university council committee to examine the issue of student conscientious objection. The result was a formal policy in 1998 requiring the university to make “reasonable efforts” to provide acceptable alternatives of comparable difficulty to any student who objected to a learning or assessment activity. This was Australia’s first formal university-wide policy, and has since been copied by at least two other Australian and one major American university, and numerous Murdoch students have successfully used it to learn without harming animals, although the attitudes of some academics remain poor.

I also delivered an alternatives submission to the Animal Ethics Committee, listing 163 alternatives for 9 physiology experiments, which rapidly resulted in the cancellation of almost all of them.

My next major struggle occurred when I refused to kill animals in my surgical year. At Murdoch, as is normal in veterinary schools worldwide, students practiced surgical procedures on healthy animals before killing them. The surgery and anesthesiology academics were opposed to the idea of humane alternatives, but were now required to provide them. They managed to comply with the letter but not the spirit of the conscientious objection policy by refusing to teach us themselves (despite being paid to do so), and instead requiring us to arrange our own practical instruction at private veterinary clinics or animal shelters elsewhere; and by requiring us to source our own dogs or cats, e.g. from animal shelters, and bring them to the university for sterilization. If we could not perform the surgeries to their own high standards they would fail us.

This made Murdoch the only vet school worldwide in which the academics paid to teach an alternative surgical program refused to do so, instead requiring students to arrange their own practical training elsewhere. Nevertheless, even getting them to agree to this much had been like trying to squeeze water from a stone, so we agreed.

Ultimately we succeeded, gaining five times the surgical and anesthetic experience of our classmates who killed to gain their degrees. It felt exceedingly good to be sterilizing animals and thereby preventing unnecessary deaths, instead of causing them during our training.

Abolitionist: In your excellent online guide to conscientious objection you say that most of the academics in the relevant facilities have been immersed in a pro-animal research environment for years. How did you and how does one overcome hostility from a faculty teacher who is indoctrinated to being pro-vivisection?

Andrew: The best way, and, in most universities, probably the only way with a chance of success, is to be professional at all times. That includes being articulate and knowledgeable about humane alternatives (e.g. by reading Learning Without Killing), presenting an evidence and fact-based argument (e.g. educational studies of student learning outcomes), presenting well-thought out positions, showing commitment to those positions, being prepared to work hard to provide good information about alternatives quickly when necessary, remaining polite despite severe provocation, being a good student otherwise, and remaining professional at all times.

It includes being strategic. E.g., by focusing on the worst animal abuse first. Tackling all worthwhile issues at once usually results in spreading oneself too thin, with subsequent failure to achieve success on any one issue, and very possibly, the rest of the course as well. By taking a strong ethical position, and—particularly—by showing courage in doing so, you will earn respect from some staff and students, which will be followed by support.

Abolitionist: Were you penalised for being a conscientious objector?

Andrew: I studied veterinary medicine at Western Australia’s Murdoch University, and completed the course in 2001. My boycott of an introductory biology lab using freshly-killed rat intestines in first year cost me a top grade for that unit. My boycott of a large number of physiology vivisection labs in second year initially cost a small number of marks, which were later returned after I initiated legal action. My insistence on alternatives to our ‘terminal’ (lethal) surgery labs in fourth year seemed to earn me the hatred of my anesthesiology instructor, and the loss of a small number of marks. My intense campaign for alternatives effectively reached a full-time load at some times, and probably cost me an Honours degree. But instead I gained a PhD in animal activism, and saved a large number of lives!

Abolitionist: Can you list some of the main alternatives available please and tell us is there an alternative for every animal experiment that you encounter while training to become a vet Andrew?

Andrew: Harmful animal use has historically played an integral role in veterinary education. Animals have been killed for anatomy dissections, experimented on in physiology, biochemistry, pharmacology and parasitology laboratories—with death being the usual outcome, and have been killed during surgical training. However, within the last decade there has been a rapid expansion of the use of more humane alternatives, such as computer simulations, high quality videos, ‘ethically-sourced cadavers’ obtained from animals that have been euthanased for medical reasons, or that have died naturally or in accidents, preserved specimens, models and surgical simulators, non-invasive self-experimentation and supervised clinical experiences.

Humane veterinary surgical courses ideally comprise several stages. Students commence by learning basic manual skills such as suturing and instrument handling using knot-tying boards, plastic organs, and similar models. They then progress to simulated surgery on ethically-sourced cadavers. Finally students observe, assist with, and then perform necessary surgery under close supervision on real patients that actually benefit from the surgery—as distinct from on healthy animals that are later killed—similar to the manner in which physicians are trained.

An important part of humane veterinary surgical courses worldwide are animal shelter sterilisation programs, in which homeless animals are neutered by students under supervision and returned to shelters. The great popularity of these programs stems in part from the fact that all parties benefit from them. The animals have their adoption rates increased by neutering, the numbers of unwanted animals subsequently killed due to uncontrolled breeding is decreased, the students gain invaluable experience at some of the most common procedures they will later perform in practice, and their veterinary school experiences the public relations benefits of providing a valued community service.

Although animals are essential in veterinary education, e.g. to learn animal handling and clinical skills such as surgery, there is no need to harm or kill animals. Given that veterinarians need more animal contact than virtually any other profession, harmful animal use is unlikely to be truly necessary in any field of biomedical training.

Abolitionist: Is the use of pound animals in veterinary surgical training a separate issue and if the student doesn't have time to fight this issue alone what should they do?

Andrew: Animals are often sourced from pounds for use in physiology experiments or surgical training. Usually these result in death. The one noteworthy exception is when animals are sterilised, and returned for adoption. The only use of pound animals unlikely to risk substantial public opposition, that is also likely to achieve a steady supply of animals without ethical problems, are sterilisation programs. As stated, the substantial benefits to the animals, the students and the shelter or pound have made these very popular worldwide.

Abolitionist: How does one prepare oneself for the grief one encounters when meeting the animals that will soon be murdered at vet school?

Andrew: This is a very personal question. My personal answer is to try to remember that at any point in time, large numbers of animals (and people) are suffering all manner of injustices and atrocities around the world, while for many others, the opposite is occurring. Hence the best course of action is that which will achieve the greatest good, for the greatest number. This may include running an effective campaign for alternatives in education, achieving a veterinary degree, and using it to advance awareness of animal suffering in society. Achieving this much, long-term, requires considerable stability and balance. This requires a certain level of desensitisation, which of course is potentially dangerous, and only justifiable, I think, if it clearly allows you to focus on achieving a greater good.

Abolitionist: Does anybody in authority, that you know of, ever discuss the paradox that their career has been furnished on killing animals unnecessarily as there are alternatives available.

Andrew: No. There are a very few people such as Drs Jerry Vlasak and Don Barnes who experimented on animals during their careers and have since acknowledged that this was wrong, and who have gone on to become leading animal advocates. However, the result has usually been that they’ve lost the positions of authority they enjoyed during their former careers, although with new doors opening as old doors close, they’ve since achieved success in more animal-friendly careers.

I don’t know anyone whose present career is built on animal experiments who is willing to acknowledge their lack of necessity. That would essentially amount to a damning admission of guilt (which is why many academics are so surprisingly resistant to acknowledging that humane teaching methods might, in fact, offer a viable alternative).

Publicly acknowledging the lack of necessity of animal experiments would very likely precipitate a career change in the near future, which would, in fact, be a good thing.

Abolitionist: Why did you personally end up seeking legal advise after all was said and done?

Andrew: I placed a formal complaint against Murdoch University with the state government authority responsible for administering the state’s equal opportunity legislation, which outlawed discrimination in education on the basis of political or religious beliefs, ethnicity and several other grounds. This rapidly resulted in the marks I’d lost for boycotting our physiology labs being restored to me, and the establishment of a university committee to examine the issue of student conscientious objection. I took these steps only after my requests for humane teaching methods had been denied all the way up the academic chain of command.

Abolitionist: Are animals used multiple times for surgery? Are they alive at the first procedure then killed for the second or are they dead for the first procedure then frozen and brought back for a second procedure or are they alive throughout all procedures and killed at the end of it?

Andrew: Dogs and other animal may be dissected piecemeal in anatomy, over a long period—six weeks in my case. They are frozen or chilled between dissections. Animals subjected to experiments or terminal surgical training are likely to have multiple invasive procedures conducted on them, followed by death. Although it occurred in the past (e.g. bones were broken and then repaired), animals do not generally undergo recovery procedures today, where recovery from anesthesia is later followed by further invasive procedures. Recovery surgeries are likely to involve substantial suffering, and their elimination is an important sign of progress, although much harmful animal use remains.

Abolitionist: Can you rebuff these commonest arguments for the use of dogs in non-recovery surgery please?

AK: I’ve addressed all these points already, with the exception of the following:

A deep-seated need to personally justify all the killing they’ve been responsible for, and the subsequent maintenance of a belief that humane teaching methods could not possibly produce acceptable learning outcomes, probably underlies the surprisingly fierce opposition of many academics to polite student requests for humane teaching methods. However, of ten studies from 1989 to 2000 comparing learning outcomes of veterinary students trained via harmful animal use with those trained via humane alternatives, nine assessed surgical training—historically the discipline involving greatest harmful animal use. 30% (3/10) demonstrated superior learning outcomes using more humane alternatives. 60% (6/10) demonstrated equivalent learning outcomes, and only one study demonstrated inferior learning outcomes. The plastic organ models used in this study were found to be deficient and were subsequently replaced.

When all biomedical disciplines are examined, at least 30 studies covering a wide variety of disciplines have demonstrated the efficacy of humane teaching methods. 36.7% (11/30) demonstrated superior learning outcomes when humane alternatives were used. 56.7% percent (17/30) demonstrated equivalent educational efficacy, and only 6.7% (2/30) demonstrated inferior educational efficacy of humane alternatives. The other deficient alternative was a high-school level computer simulation of a dissection that was used to teach anatomy to college-level biology students. Twenty two other studies in which comparison with harmful animal use did not occur have demonstrated staff time and cost savings and other important advantages of humane alternatives.

These studies are all summarized at www.LearningWithoutKilling.info.