Many students from the life sciences have deeply held beliefs and valid feelings regarding the use of animals in practical courses. Where humane alternatives are already the norm or where official student choice policies exist, respect has already been granted, and the situation is conducive to good learning. In some universities, however, such students are discriminated against and their freedom of conscience violated. While a few may drop out or be forced to change discipline, others are encouraged or coerced into performing dissection and other animal experiments. Conscientious objection is the only option left within such an environment.
The number of students who conscientiously object and publicly disagree with harmful animal use is often low. This is understandable considering the social and academic pressures of being a student, and the psychological and academic penalty often threatened to those who question the status quo. But the situation is misleading, and the literature shows that when the inherent ethical issues surrounding animal use are discussed openly, many more students will object and ask for alternatives. Occasionally whole classes may object, giving teachers the opportunity to exercise their academic freedom and develop new and progressive ways to meet the teaching objectives.

Conscientiously objecting students have usually thought about the issues in a determined and critical way, and researched the literature on knowledge and skills acquisition. Some have written comprehensive proposals to their university, and have arranged extra-curricular training, for example with private veterinarians. They aspire to best practice. In other words, as well as the high level of motivation and commitment to their education, they are prepared to challenge the orthodoxy if it can't be sustained, and to use the rigour of critical thought whilst never losing the heart that must inform even the most objective of decisions. They comprise some of the best scientists, individuals who will continue to help shape the future long after graduation.

Healthy emotions and clear minds are needed when new proposals and challenges are made; dialogue and mutual respect are needed too, because a win-win solution benefiting the student and the institute can usually be found from a perceived conflict. The role that conscientiously objecting students play in this process is often one of bringing in new ideas and new energy. They could be welcomed as partners with the teaching establishment in helping to modernise and make humane the current practice, and recognised as catalysts for the resolution of existing and often unspoken tension. It is up to teachers to respond appropriately.

The evidence of a ground-shift is becoming more and more apparent: the new veterinary college at Western University of Health Sciences in California, now closer to opening its doors to students, has all its courses being designed to be zero-animal consumptive, with a 'reverence for life' philosophy. Its director of surgery and clinical studies, Dr Lara Rasmussen, is herself a former conscientious objector, and she was head-hunted for the post. So there is already a new generation of revolutionary teachers, using in their courses a wide range of alternative tools and approaches consciously chosen for a top-quality education, and with full rights granted to both students and animals.


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