A national doctors’ advocacy group has filed a federal complaint against the Hennepin County Medical Center (HCMC), alleging that its use of live animals for medical training violates the Animal Welfare Act.

The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine says advancements in simulated surgical methods and high-tech mannequins have made the use of live animals unnecessary. The complaint, filed with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, also says HCMC has the resources to perform procedures without live animals and that the hospital provided outdated statistics to justify their continued use.

In a statement issued Thursday, HCMC said it has reduced its use of live animals and plans to eliminate the practice but insisted that “a few critical, lifesaving procedures … can only be reliably taught” with animals.

“We support the judicious use of animals in education in the interest of human health and animal welfare. We insist on the humane and ethical treatment of animals,” the statement said.

The physicians group said its national survey of 135 hospitals found that only 19, including HCMC, use animals in teaching doctors. In Minnesota, HCMC is the only hospital using live animals for emergency medical training, the group said.

John Pippin, a retired cardiologist and member of the group, said young doctors can now be trained without the use of live animals. “Animal use is not even essential for research into drug and human diseases,” Pippin said. “It’s not needed to train doctors to do medical procedures.”

The physicians committee said its open-records requests produced documents showing that HCMC used 450 sheep and 450 rabbits over a three-year period for 20 training procedures. The procedures include drilling holes in skulls to relieve pressure, fluid removal from vital organs and inserting breathing tubes.

Dr. Matthew Clayton, a St. Paul physician who signed onto the complaint, said use of animals in the 1980s might have been justified by the lack of good training alternatives. But times and technology have changed, he said.

“I don’t think it’s anything evil, but the world’s moving on from these practices,” Clayton said. “For some, change is hard.”

 

Youssef Rddad is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.