A Veterinary Student's Experience with Terminal Surgical Training

April 20, 2012


Terminal veterinary surgical laboratories ended at The University of Melbourne


The following is the testimony of Dr Lisa Elsner, who graduated from the University of Melbourne veterinary school in 2005. She waged a long and sometimes difficult campaign for humane teaching methods, which has now resulted in the ending of terminal veterinary surgical laboratories at The University of Melbourne. 


I wanted to be a vet from when I was very young, and always cared deeply for the welfare of non-human animals.  I wanted to become a vet with the sole purpose of improving the welfare of non-human animals. I entered the veterinary science course as a mature age student, having done a few different things after finishing high school, including working with horses.

The first and second years of the vet degree involved lots of dissections, utilising greyhounds which had been euthanised due to lack of performance on the racing track. I was absolutely disgusted at the complete lack of empathy shown towards these dogs by staff and students. During anatomy classes my peers would joke about which part of the greyhound would taste the best on a barbecue and at times would throw pieces of muscles they had dissected from a greyhound at each other.  It was at this early point in my course that I started to wonder whether there were humane alternatives available, but I had no idea where to look or who to turn to for assistance. 


I started searching on the internet, namely animal rights websites, hoping to find something.  I stumbled across an interview with Andrew Knight on the animal liberation NSW website.  I couldn’t believe there was another vet student also opposed to this kind of thing.

I got in contact with Andrew and this lead to the beginning of my campaign at Melbourne University.


It was only after getting in contact with Andrew that I found out about terminal surgery classes – I was absolutely shocked that this was how they taught vet students to perform surgeries. I always thought that students would learn under the strict guidance of experienced veterinarians out in private practice and/or shelters.  I knew I had to do something – there was no way I was going to take part in those terminal surgery classes.


In around 2002, we started putting together a submission for alternatives to harmful prac classes, which I was to hand in to the Dean of Veterinary Science. Andrew provided most of the papers to include in the submission. I then put together a covering letter and attempted to get signatures from my peers to support this submission. I had around 6 or 7 other vet students at that time who were willing to support me. I thought that wasn’t bad considering how narrow minded most of my peers were.


I handed my completed submission to the Dean of Vet science. I was approached by the head of the surgery department at the vet school not long after this and he said that the Dean had passed the submission on to him and it was unlikely that the Dean had even read it. I was not impressed! But also not surprised at the disinterest shown by the Dean at what was and still is a very conservative university.

The head of surgery then set up a meeting with himself, the Dean, myself, and one other student who also did not want to take part in the terminal surgery classes. The Dean spent the whole time patronising me and questioning my beliefs. He said that they should be able to organise some cadavers, which were dogs that had supposedly been euthanised for health reasons, for me to complete the surgical prac classes later on in the course. 


Very soon after I had this meeting, the first surgical class, which was written in the prac book as a live surgery , and had been every year, was changed to a class only involving the use of cadavers. Subsequently, after students were informed of this, a student approached the front of the class one day at a lecture and announced that someone (ie me) was trying to ruin the surgical course for everyone and that a petition was being passed around the room so that those opposed to an alternative could sign it. As expected virtually everyone signed the petition. Even a few who had previously supported me by signing my submission, signed the petition, which was very disappointing.


Not long after this event I began receiving some very unpleasant, and at times abusive emails, from a number of my peers including claims that I was “singlehandedly trying to tarnish the reputation of the veterinary school” and so on.

And so began the practical classes later in third year (2003). As I mentioned the first surgical class only used cadavers which was for all students – this was to learn how to do a thoracotomy.  The next week I arrived for my second surgical class, thankful that I would not be killing any animals in order to learn. But despite this I had to endure seeing students dragging petrified dogs in to the surgery area – this was to be the last time these dogs would ever see sunshine. I felt physically sick knowing that these innocent dogs were going to be killed later that morning. My prac partner and I received our cadaver while the other students had 1 live dog per group. The surgery that was performed was a spey. I will never forget seeing students repeatedly attempting catheterisation on their dog despite the high level of stress that it caused them. The prac classes were very disorganised and poorly supervised. I witnessed one of the groups, which included some friends of mine, struggling with their surgery. The student performing the surgery told another member of the group that their dog was bleeding – the students were obviously extremely stressed by the situation and had absolutely no clue what to do. There were no staff members around at that time. Finally a staff member appeared – a member of the student group informed the staff member that their dog was “bleeding out”. 


At every class I had my beliefs questioned as well as receiving puzzling looks from veterinary staff who just couldn’t understand why I didn’t want to take part in the terminal surgeries.


I questioned the staff more than once as to where the dogs used for the labs were sourced from only to be given a very roundabout answer. Many of the dogs were kelpies or kelpie crosses. Considering the lack of information from staff regarding these dogs and considering the breeds used, I assumed they must have come from farms or backyard breeders. The university has a dog colony which is set up at the Werribee campus, where students undertake the final 2 years of the course. Dogs kept in this colony were kept in small concrete runs with absolutely no mental stimulation aside from listening to the other dogs barking non-stop. There was no bedding provided so the dogs had to sleep on concrete.


I began to be treated differently by certain members of staff, namely the Dean and a couple of others who would show me indifference and would often be quite rude towards me.


After the surgical classes had finished I questioned the head of surgery as to whether an alternative course would be incorporated in to the syllabus and he said “yes”.

After being treated very badly during the remainder of my course, and particularly towards the end, I finally graduated. 


After practising as a vet for a little while I began to focus again on getting alternatives in place for other students who would follow, as I found out from a vet student who I knew at the time that no alternative course was in place yet.


It was in 2008 that I subsequently got in touch with a journalist, through animal liberation Victoria, who was very interested in running a story on this topic. I told her my experiences and what alternatives I thought should be put in to place, etc. The article came out in a major newspaper in Melbourne, the Herald Sun. Unfortunately the editor edited out the most important parts but it was still great that it was published. There was a huge response from the public to this article which was fantastic. Quite a few people wrote in online to express their views, many being disgusted and outraged by what was happening at the university.


Later in 2008,  a very high profile radio presenter in Melbourne also ran a segment on the issue. The radio presenter wanted to interview me but I was very ill at the time and so a representative from Animal Liberation Victoria stepped in for me. The other side was represented by the Dean of Vet Science from Melbourne University. The Dean, as expected,  kept justifying the practices at the university and even the radio presenter, who was completely ignorant about this issue, seemed to completely side with the Dean.  


Things died down a bit after this, but it had put things in to motion, in more ways than I realised at the time.


I tried contacting the vet school more than once after the newspaper article, but predictably never got an answer, even from the head of surgery.


It was only more recently, in 2011, that I finally got the answer I had waited for, from a chance encounter with a final year vet student at work. He told me that their entire year level was brought together for a meeting late in 2010, and members of staff proceeded to ask who would still like to take part in the terminal surgical classes – he said most students wanted to take part. Staff then told the students that due to public pressure following the newspaper article that came out in 2008 (when I went to the media) they would have to cancel all future terminal surgical classes!


I then contacted the university itself early 2011 to get written confirmation from the vet department which I got. The reply was as follows:


“You are correct, the Faculty does not use terminal surgeries in its veterinary teaching program and has developed a range of other options, including a partnership with an animal welfare organisation, to ensure that our students receive optimal training in anaesthesia and surgery”.


In 2011 I also got in touch with the Animal Welfare officer at Melbourne University, who is a veterinarian.  I requested written confirmation from her also as I had previously spoken to her about my situation and that I was interested in following this up. Her reply, in November of 2011, was as follows:


“Hi Lisa,


I've now received an informal verbal update from the surgery team, as follows:


The EBC synthetic abdominal model has now been fully implemented and has replaced the use of 40 animals. This model utilises pig intestine sourced from an abattoir, which is glued and sutured into a model within a stuffed dog. Opsite film is placed over the synthetic layers representing skin, subcutaneous tissues and muscle. Students practice doing incisions and an intestinal anastamosis to resect a texta-marked intestinal lesion. The students have given very positive feedback regarding the design of this model both from an educational perspective (tissue handling and suturing/closure techniques) and from a Replacement perspective. 

Further to the above, a neutering clinic arrangement has now been set up in conjunction with external veterinary organisation, to enable students to learn to desex in clinical patients.

Further examples of Replacement which have been implemented include the use of synthetic bones for learning and practising orthopaedic techniques (plating, screws etc). The use of the VirtualVetSurgery multimedia program further complements the surgery teaching through the provision of theory as well as videos of techniques.

I think the team appears to have done a good job with this, with their implementation of the 3Rs. I hope this addresses your concerns.


Aside from them using pig intestine Im very happy with what has been implemented. It is a far cry from what was being done while I was a vet student. I am relieved that all the stress and hard work has finally paid off! Most of all I am pleased that no dogs will be subjected to the terminal surgery pracs anymore and that no student will ever have to go through what I had to go through.

Having said that I have absolutely no regrets whatsoever about what I went through as it resulted in major changes to the curriculum of the veterinary course.  


A huge thank you goes to Dr Andrew Knight, who provided me with much needed moral support, as well as guidance, throughout much of my time in vet school. It helped me greatly to get through what was a very tough time.”

Please reload

Featured Posts

1st Prize 2015 Sentient Student Essay Competition

April 11, 2016

Please reload

Recent Posts

February 14, 2020

Please reload

Please reload