Local protesters denounce Med School’s use of cats
Pictures of cats with banners declaring, “I am not lab equipment” and “On humans, it’s torture. On animals, it’s research?” dotted the corner of Skinker Boulevard and Forest Park Parkway in small protest against Washington University’s use of live cats in a medical school course.
The class, offered as part of the Pediatric Advanced Life Support (PALS) program, uses anesthetized cats to allow students to learn how to perform infant intubation—a procedure in which a flexible plastic tube is placed into an infant’s trachea to maintain an open airway or administer drugs.
Activists argued that the program constitutes torture of the cats and said the University should instead use mannequin simulation labs like most other programs across the country.
The activists were assembled for a conference titled “Free the Animals—Effective Action Against Vivisection.” Their overall message, however, is part of a larger campaign by PETA, which created many of the group’s banners and the materials they were handing out.
“There are lots of non-animal research method alternatives specifically in PALS training,” said Alex Graff of the St. Louis Vegans. “[Washington University] has access to a state-of-the-art pediatric simulation lab.”
Their arguments centered on the fact that the American Heart Association (AHA) no longer endorses the use of cats in the lab. Additionally, many of the top medical schools no longer use cats in their labs.
But Dr. Robert Kennedy, medical director of the PALS program, said that mannequins are generally used not because they are better, but because they are cheaper.
“The vast majority of programs cannot afford the lab costs and do not have the resources required to conduct the lab or to maintain a colony of cats or ferrets,” Kennedy said. “[That is] in addition to recognition that some participants will not wish to participate in such a lab.”
He emphasized the importance of effective training, as intubation can be a life-or-death procedure.
“Everybody struggles with intubating infants successfully. It’s a difficult skill and it’s not something [doctors and EMTs] get to do every day,” Kennedy said. “Nationally, we’re finding we are not as good as we think we are.”
Assistant Vice Chancellor for Medical Public Affairs Joni Westerhouse added that the cats used for intubation are properly cared for, contrary to the protestors’ arguments.
“In the 20-plus years we have offered the course, no cat has died or been injured,” Westerhouse wrote in a statement to Student Life. “Veterinarians and vet technicians who advocate passionately for the cats and care for them like pets oversee the lab. The cats live in an open room where they roam freely and are played with by our staff.”