For years, the Warren Alpert Medical School has been criticized by physicians, legislators and even one of the country’s largest newspapers for its continued abuse of live pigs in the emergency medicine residency program. Even as nearly every other medical center in the country has moved toward more humane practices, university leadership has ignored calls for change and common sense morality. It’s time for Brown to put an immediate end to the needless and cruel abuse of live pigs for medical training.
According to the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, a leading nonprofit that advocates for changes to outdated and unethical research practices, the medical school operates on and kills pigs to teach only one medical procedure, known as a “surgical airway.” This involves anesthetizing the pigs and slicing open their necks before operating on and then euthanizing them. The fact that Brown uses anesthetics before this procedure does not excuse the injury and killing of a living animal. PCRM has been pressing Brown to reform this policy for years, arguing that the University is on an academic island when it comes to training with live animals. Over 97% of emergency medicine residency programs in the United States and Canada have stopped using animals for medical training and instead have transitioned to using simulation devices or cadavers, according to PCRM. In fact, Brown is the only Ivy League school that still uses animals for medical training. The clear consensus in academia is that using animals is unnecessary and that training with simulations or cadavers is equally effective.
Even if it were not unpopular, the culling of pigs for medical training is clearly unethical. Pigs are known to be highly social and emotional animals — not so different from you and me. Studies have found that pigs are intelligent, too; they seem to know whether humans are paying attention to them and are capable of tool use. Researchers have compared their intelligence to that of dogs and chimpanzees. Any dog lover would be appalled if their canine companions were to be hurt and killed for medical training despite the existence of better methods. There is no principled reason for pigs to be treated so much worse than dogs or great apes, so the handling they receive in Brown’s emergency medicine training program is senseless and arbitrary.
Community members have been advocating for the end to this cruel practice for years. A 2020 petition endorsed by the Brown Animal Rights Coalition has garnered nearly 4,000 signatures to date, but no policy change has resulted. Bills were also introduced in the Rhode Island General Assembly this year and last which sought to ban the use of live animals for medical training in cases where there are adequate alternatives. Unfortunately, both of these bills have stalled or died in committee, which is all the more alarming considering that Brown appears unwilling to adopt these basic animal welfare standards without being forced by law to do so. The University should be leading on animal welfare, not the subject of targeted legislation.
The treatment of pigs in emergency medical training is just one example of a myriad of documented animal rights abuses at Brown. From March 2019 to April 2021, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has accused the University of committing at least 23 violations of federal animal welfare guidelines. In the past, PETA has alleged that researchers at Brown inadvertently starved bats and endangered monkeys and ferrets who escaped from improperly secured cages. Numerous mice have died of starvation or dehydration as well. We cannot expect that every animal will be treated like family, but Brown should at the very least be able to hold itself to welfare standards that avoid gross negligence.
Years of obstinacy and moral failure on Brown’s part have failed to break animal rights advocates’ resolve on this issue. This past Thursday, during the fall meeting of the Brown Corporation, physicians and activists from PCRM led a demonstration outside of Page-Robinson Hall to ask Brown’s leadership to change his policy on the use of live pigs. We at the Brown Animal Rights Coalition have gathered over 500 pen-and-paper signatures in support of this effort over the past month. With continued pressure from the Brown community, administration will hopefully see reason and make the necessary changes.
Brown ostensibly prides himself on being a forward-looking and progressive institution, but it is impossible for the University to live up to this self-image while the medical school lags behind its peers on animal welfare. The facts of the matter are clear: Pigs are intelligent living creatures, and most emergency medical programs have opted to respect these animals by refusing to subject them to needless and fatal surgeries. The ongoing abuse of pigs in our emergency medicine residency program is a vestige of outdated modes of medical practice and views on animal rights. Leadership at the Alpert Medical School must catch up to the times and replace these operations on pigs with equally effective nonanimal training methods.
Benny Smith ’23 can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please send responses to this opinion to email@example.com and other op-eds to firstname.lastname@example.org.