Pushing for better welfare, pathology

Dr. Aline Schunemann de Aluja credited with improving animal and human lives in Mexico
Published on
information-circle This article is more than 3 years old

Dr. Aline Schunemann de Aluja has fought to improve conditions for animals in Mexico's slaughterhouses and animal markets since she was a veterinary student in the 1940s.

She has worked recently to gain funding for changes at animal markets. She thinks attaching exit ramps to vehicles arriving at the markets could prevent broken legs among pigs and cattle, and providing chutes from those vehicles to corrals could prevent chaos and beatings. She is also working to give municipal slaughterhouse workers training and equipment needed to stun animals rather than cut conscious animals' throats.

Dr. Aluja
Dr. Aline Schunemann de Aluja (Photos courtesy of UNAM Facultad de Medicina Veterinaria y Zootecnia)

Dr. Aluja, who is an emeritus professor of pathology at the National Autonomous University of Mexico said many of the people she has educated simply had not considered animal welfare or weren't told the animals don't need to suffer. She is seeing progress in animal treatment but stresses that national and international trends, rather than her own work, are behind that progress.

"It used to be considered that an animal is something that doesn't feel, that doesn't realize its surroundings, and now we have become aware through scientific results and through research that animals are very much aware of their surroundings—that animals have a capacity of consciously remembering what has formerly happened to them and what is going to happen to them," she said. "They have the capacity of being afraid."

However, Dr. Rubén Danilo Méndez Medina credits Dr. Aluja with creating the regulations that—at least officially—require the use of approved stunning methods during slaughter and set minimum standards for animal care, transportation, and housing.

Dr. Méndez, a pathologist focused on welfare in slaughterhouses, also noted that Dr. Aluja has worked to provide free care for donkeys and horses in rural areas, train animal protection organizations on use of stun guns on livestock, and develop pathology programs for the federal government and UNAM.

Dr. Francisco J. Trigo Tavera, dean of UNAM's veterinary school, similarly said Dr. Aluja is renowned in Mexico and Latin America for work that has developed and strengthened pathology education and animal welfare.

Without her, "Certainly, the degree of advancement of veterinary pathology in Mexico wouldn't be the same, and the developments in improving legislation toward animal welfare in Mexico wouldn't be at the level they are now," Dr. Trigo said.

Affection for animals

Dr. Aluja said she has always had a special affection for animals, which led her to study veterinary medicine. After earning her veterinary degree at UNAM, Dr. Aluja joined most of Mexico's veterinarians in working to control foot-and-mouth disease.

She would briefly study at the University of Zurich and The Royal Veterinary College at the University of London, then return to UNAM's veterinary school and assist the professor in charge of the school's histology and pathology education. She again briefly left the university for further studies, earning a master's in pathology at the University of Pennsylvania in 1962. Returning to Mexico City, she helped modernize UNAM's pathology program, creating new collections of case studies and slides to teach gross pathology.

Dr. Aluja was given the title of emeritus professor in 1985. She received national awards for teaching and welfare in 1989 and 1993, respectively, and helped restructure the veterinary and animal production curriculums three times from 1974-2004. She has also provided expertise to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations in Africa, Asia, Europe, and South America.

"She has been and is my role model," Dr. Méndez said, citing Dr. Aluja's discipline, hard work, honesty, and long career filled with exemplary work.

Developing pathology in laboratories and fields

Dr. Aluja chaired the pathology department for about 20 years, starting in 1971, and continues teaching pathology courses today.

Dr. Trigo met Dr. Aluja in 1971, when he was a third-year student at UNAM and she was the lecturer for his first class on pathology.

"You could say that I became a pathologist thanks to the initial impact of her lectures on me," he said.

She is the founder of veterinary pathology in Mexico, Dr. Méndez said, noting that Dr. Aluja trained personnel from the National Laboratory of Diagnostics and developed the UNAM veterinary school's first postgraduate pathology courses.

When Dr. Trigo was a student, those who completed Dr. Aluja's general pathology and systemic pathology classes were commonly invited to become assistants in the Pathology Department, where they would aid students in pathology in addition to completing their own class work. He and others who met her exacting demands gained deep understanding of pathology through lectures and slide examinations in the necropsy room.

As the Pathology Department grew, Dr. Aluja added clinical pathology courses and wrote a book on necropsy procedures. The school's necropsy facilities were built while she was head of the department.

She also encouraged students to continue their education by pursuing postgraduate degrees, and Dr. Trigo said young veterinarians followed her example by traveling to universities in the U.S., Canada, and Great Britain.

Dr. Aluja organized student apprenticeships in rural provinces lacking the facilities available in the university. There, students needed increased knowledge to develop accurate diagnoses.

"Pathology, in a country like Mexico, is something that you have to learn to work in the field, and not only in a fancy necropsy room," Dr. Aluja said.

Dr. Aluja and UNAM Pathology Department faculty & students
Dr. Aline Schunemann de Aluja sits in front of faculty members and students of UNAM's veterinary school Pathology Department in this undated photo from the early 1970s.

Dr. Aluja also developed and strengthened the school's veterinary pathology museum, which contains many of the samples and historical documents collected while she led the department.

Welfare work spans decades

During her veterinary courses in the 1970s, Dr. Aluja promoted improved treatment of livestock, particularly those killed without being properly stunned, Dr. Trigo said. Outside the classroom, she pushed for legislation on proper care for animals.

"She would talk to us of the need in Mexico in many slaughterhouses to improve the processing of animals," Dr. Trigo said. "The killing process was not well-done in many respects."

Dr. Francisco Aurelio Galindo Maldonado, a professor of ethology and animal welfare at UNAM, said Dr. Aluja has had an important role in enhancing animal welfare policies in Mexico. She has pushed for the scientific community to participate in committees that advise the federal government and helped draft key pieces of legislation.

Dr. Galindo noted that Dr. Aluja organized Mexico's first veterinary animal welfare courses 30 years ago, and, in 1990, she invited academics from Europe and the U.S. to train Mexican lecturers on welfare.

In the late 1980s, Dr. Aluja encouraged veterinarians to pursue postgraduate training abroad on animal welfare. By the early 1990s, those returning after receiving this additional training were working with the faculty to establish an animal welfare department in the veterinary school. She stressed that veterinary students need to learn about anatomy, physiology, endocrinology, and neurology in animal welfare instruction.

She is not yet satisfied with her work to improve animals' lives, but she expressed happiness that animal welfare is increasingly taken seriously.

"I feel confident that I have sensitized my colleagues that this is what we have to do," she said.

Although she thinks too few personnel are assigned to enforce rules on transportation and slaughter, she thinks animal welfare has become an increasingly important issue in Mexico because of the desire to export meat and live animals. The concern is particularly important for meeting demands from some European countries with stricter standards on animal handling.

Obligation to help poor

Dr. Aluja spent 20 years working to provide free care and educate owners on animal feeding and care as Mexico's representative for the International Donkey Protection Trust. The organization is a sister charity to Donkey Sanctuary, and used to perform the international work now carried out under Donkey Sanctuary, according to Rob Nichols, head of international administration for Donkey Sanctuary in the U.K.

Nichols said Dr. Aluja founded the project in Mexico about 25 years ago and retired from an active role five years ago. The U.K.-based organization continues funding work in Mexico.

"We tried to teach people how to handle and how to treat their donkeys so that their donkeys could help them more," Dr. Aluja said. "Because in Mexico, if you have a donkey of 10, 12 years, the poor animal is sort of finished, and a donkey can live and work up to 20 years easily.

"But all this depends how you treat it, how you feed it, and how you take care of it."

Dr. Aluja continues research on cysticercosis and efforts to vaccinate free-roaming pigs in three southern states of Mexico. The tapeworms responsible for the disease have infected pigs and people in rural areas.

Her research with partners in England and UNAM's Institute of Biomedical Research has led to development of a swine-use cysticercosis vaccine.

She said she and fellow veterinarians in Mexico need to help the nation's poor learn how to improve their lives. Dr. Galindo praised Dr. Aluja as a tireless advocate and aide to impoverished communities.

"She is a person that has transformed institutions and ways of thinking, always caring for people and all living creatures," he said.

Legends in Veterinary Medicine

In honor of World Veterinary Year, JAVMA is highlighting key international veterinarians from the past 250 years.