A public rebuke by a wealthy donor to Oklahoma State University has put the Center for Veterinary Health Sciences' teaching practices under a microscope.
Madeleine Pickens, wife of Texas billionaire T. Boone Pickens, accused the center of buying "distressed" dogs from class B breeders and then using the animals for multiple, "barbaric" surgical training procedures, in a Feb. 20 interview with the university's newspaper, the Daily O'Collegian.
Her claims are based largely on what an anonymous Oklahoma State veterinary student allegedly told her last fall. As a result, Pickens has requested that the university not allow the veterinary college to benefit from a $5 million donation she gave to Oklahoma State this past year. Although Pickens did not specify how the money should be used, the veterinary college was proposed to be the beneficiary.
Pickens now says she wants the money "redirected" from the veterinary center to elsewhere at the university. For her actions, she was commended by Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the United States, according to a Feb. 24 blog entry Pickens posted on her Web site, www.madeleinepickens.com.
"To me it's amazing you teach students who are going to save animals' lives, so you buy dogs to practice on and kill, and then they go out in the world and save animals," Pickens told JAVMA in a telephone interview.
College alumni, current students, and Dr. Michael Lorenz, dean of the Center for Veterinary Health Sciences, have all since refuted her allegations.
In a Feb. 24 statement, Dr. Lorenz said animals used for surgery are acquired from brokers who purchase dogs from animal shelters and other approved sources. These dogs, already marked for euthanasia, are given proper anesthesia and care throughout the procedures, according to the statement. In 2008, the school euthanized 76 dogs that were used for veterinary instruction.
Pickens, a supporter of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, also told the paper that students perform surgery on a dog under anesthesia one day and perform another surgery the next day, "maybe break a leg, fix it, wake them up again, and then they kill them."
Dr. Lorenz countered that no more than two surgeries are ever performed on any one animal, and of these, only one involves recovery from anesthesia.
"The only organs that are removed include the uterus and ovaries in females and testicles in males. Both procedures are basic for learning proper spay and neuter surgeries," he said, adding that students who do not want to use live animals during their training have the option of training on cadavers.
Bones are broken in cadaver limbs and bone models, not in live animals as stated by Pickens, as part of OSU's elective course in advanced surgical procedures for fourth-year students, he added.
The college's facilities and protocols are reviewed regularly by its faculty and Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee, in accordance with the Animal Welfare Act, as well as by the Department of Agriculture, industrial partners, and the AVMA Council on Education. The center has maintained full AVMA COE accreditation for the past 25 years; it was last reviewed in 2003.
The AVMA COE Standards of Accreditation require hands-on experience in therapeutic interventions, including surgery. With that, colleges must show that students at least have access to live animals for this purpose "to become clinically competent in basic surgery skills and case management."
The standards also dictate that the curriculum should encourage "humane stewardship of animals, contribute to improved understanding of animal needs, and provide opportunities to consider scientific, ethical, philosophical, and moral values associated with the use of animals in teaching, research, safety testing, and commercial production."
Dr. Billie Boston, a small animal practitioner in Austin, Texas, graduated from the veterinary college in 2001. She said while the option of not working on live animals during the third-year surgery course was an option, no one elected this in her class.
"You can't learn tissue handling techniques on a dead animal," she said.
As for the care of the animals, Dr. Boston said the dogs were well-taken care of and students knew if they did not walk them three to four times a day, including on weekends, they were in trouble.
"I feel like my experience at OSU was excellent," Dr. Boston said. "Everybody—professors and clinicians—cared about the animals."
Brad Youngblood, president of the Oklahoma State Student Chapter of the AVMA, and other veterinary students signed and sent a letter on Feb. 24 to the university's president, V. Burns Hargis, expressing their support for the college and its teaching practices as well as asking Hargis to meet with them and talk about the issue.
In a letter to the editor published on March 2 in The Oklahoman, AVMA Executive Vice President W. Ron DeHaven said Pickens questioning the treatment of animals at Oklahoma State "serves as an opportunity to help the public better understand the value veterinarians place on all animals and the protections the animals used in their education receive under federal law."