University of Santa Catarina, Bachelor of Science (Biology), 1995 - 2000,
Katholieke Universiteit Leuven (Belgium), Master of Applied Ethics, 2000 - 2001

 In 1998 Thales Trez rescued and re-homed a dog about to be vivisected in a physiology teaching laboratory at the University of Santa Catarina in Brazil. Instead of being expelled, his penalty was that he was required to organise three public debates on the use of animals in education. In 1999 five students anonymously photographed the bodies of dogs killed in the medical school surgery course, and delivered the photographs and an accompanying poem to a newspaper. These actions resulted in national media coverage of the laboratories and of the concept of alternatives; a lawsuit against the University by the Attorney General; the cancellation of many of the laboratories; and the introduction of alternatives.

Thales graduated in Biological Sciences from the University of Santa Catarina, Brazil, in 2000. Along with Sérgio Greif, a biologist from Unicamp/SP, he wrote the first book in Brazil to focus on the use of animals in research and education: The True Face of Animal Experimentation: Your Health in Danger, which was published in 2000. In 2001 he was the Co-ordinator of RedeNICHE, a growing humane edcuation network of students and professors based in Brazil, and linked to InterNICHE. In 2001 he finished a masters program in Applied Ethics at K.U.Leuven in Belgium, focusing on humane education.

Tréz, T., 2002, “Creative conscientious objection to harmful animal usage in education”

There are a wide range of possible actions – both anonymous and otherwise – available to students wishing to show their objections to the harmful use of animals in education. Sometimes these actions can be followed by surprises, both good and bad. The successful experiences I will share with you in the following are examples of the impact that simple acts can have in provoking debate about the harmful use of animals in education, and even in shaping public opinion. Many people in the general public and even in the university community have no idea what happens inside some university teaching labs. The first step in generating debate about the issue is to make people aware of what’s going on in their own communities. And the most creative ways of doing this can also be the most effective ways, as illustrated by the following …

Rescuing number 51

It was 9:55 in the morning, on November 17th, 1998. Close to the Physiology Department of the University of Santa Catarina in Brazil, I nervously stood, with fellow biology students Carolina and Marcia. In a few minutes an innocent dog would be used here in a “human physiology” teaching experiment. At the end of the class the dog would be euthanased. The week before we had had a big discussion with the professor when he announced the experiment to the class. It began when I started questioning the experiment, and then to my surprise everybody became engaged in the discussion. I still remember the professor’s words: “If you want to be scientists, you have to know how to properly distinguish and choose between rational thinking and emotional feelings”. In the end he invited those students interested in the experiment to attend … and those with “problems”, to stay at home. Out of 30 students, only four were intending to show up to the class.

So there we were… looking at the clock, at each other and all around, waiting for the man who was supposed to deliver the dog to the laboratory. The class would start at 10 am. It was already 9:55, and there was no sign of the man with the dog. “Maybe he is late…”, Carolina said. “Maybe the dog is already inside”, I replied. Our plan was becoming difficult, and we began to get nervous. So we decided to do something. While Carolina and Marcia stood watch outside, I walked naturally into the building and went in the direction of the lab. Inside the lab, there was nobody but the dog. He was lying on the ground, tied by a chain and looking up at me, with his head between his paws. He looked very scared. In just a few minutes, the people would start to arrive. I though to myself: “It’s now or never”. So I swallowed my fear, took him in my arms, and ran out of the building. Behind me somewhere I heard people shouting. I ran suddenly past Carolina and Marcia, who jumped, startled, as I and the dog appeared. I ran through the Biology Bar, filled with students at the end of their break. I can still remember the surprise written all over their faces. It seems funny, looking back on it now, although it didn’t at the time.

In a safe place away from the Biology centre, Marcia reached me, and stayed with the dog until I collected the car and drove him home. I vividly remember him resting his head in my lap, looking up at me whilst I was driving. It was a short but intense moment. I felt like he was recovering from a big fright, and needed some cuddles. I felt like he was thanking me… At that moment I realised what we had done, and I was happy.

At home, I gave him a nice meal and we walked around the neighbourhood.

The day after, I was called in to give some explanations about what had happened. The academics knew that I was involved, but not the other students. We held a secret meeting and decided to collectively take responsibility for the entire act. So Marcia and Carolina confessed their role in the rescue too. The police were called in and we were charged with invasion and public property stealing – enough to get us expelled from the university. We all knew what could happen to us, but none of us regretted what we had done.

We were then called to an Academic Council Meeting, with many professors, Heads of Departments and student representatives. We had to defend ourselves and, at the end, receive our penalty. Of course the head of the physiology department was there too, and very nervous – more than we were, I think. Outside the meeting room, many students and some professors were expressing their support – they were all aware of what could happen to us.

The positions of the Academic Council members were very diverse – from people who implicitly supported our position, in a moderate way, to people who wanted us expelled – like the head of the physiology department. He argued that we should return the dog – along with its chain, of course – in order to receive a softer penalty. We agreed to return the chain – and indeed I placed it on the table in front of him – but we refused to discuss returning the dog.

The head of the physiology department was very nervous, smoking a lot and pacing from side to side. In contrast we were calm and spoke with conviction, and, by explaining our ethical reasons, were able to justify our action as legitimate. We had not “invaded” the Physiology Department; I had used no violence to enter the lab; I was properly enrolled in the course; and I had entered the lab during a normal class period. We had not “stolen public property” as the dog had been arbitrarily taken from the streets, and the university had no documents to prove their ownership of the dog. Indeed, if there was someone to be charged, it was the university – perhaps with kidnapping. By explaining our belief that there was an ethical difference between an inanimate dog chain, which the university had a right to own and destroy, and a living dog, which it did not, we convinced most of the staff that we had thought through our reasons and held a strong ethical position. Guess who was not convinced?

Finally, they voted for the softer penalty. They gave us a formal warning, and the task of organising and publicising three debates about the use of animals in education. Could you imagine the smile on our faces? Guess who was still not convinced, and smoking even more?

We organised and publicised two debates afterwards, with high participation from students, professors and people from the wider community (the third debate is probably still to come). And the dog we rescued is now living somewhere safe, with people who care about him, and has a name, instead of the number 51 around his neck.

But the happiest ending was still to come. We were all surprised to learn afterwards that these experiments were replaced by videos. So no more dogs will be killed in this course. As of 2002 the physiology department is investing in other new alternatives as well, and has, for example, replaced its frog experiments with CD-ROMs like the ADAM series, as well as videos and tutorials.

I learnt a lot from this experience. I learnt that rescuing a dog could be gratifying in several unexpected ways – from the first engaging discussion with the students and the professor, to the support we received from other students and professors, the positive repercussions this action had in the academic and local media, and the consequences this simple action had on the replacement of harmful animal use at the university. Also gratifying was the fact that I graduated at the end of it all!

I also learnt a lot in those few minutes when that dog was looking at me whilst I was driving home, resting his head in my lap. I cried, and even today some tears still come when I remember that special moment. And I am surprised all over again. Animal lover or not, that look shook me somewhere deep inside, and I’ve never been quite the same.

 Exposing the cruelty

It was 10:30 am on March 31st, 1999, at the University of Santa Catarina in Brazil. Five students from different faculties were gathered close to the university hospital. Two of them were in possession of cameras. Unfortunately one had no film in it, a fact realised by its owner only after apparently taking 60 photos on a 36 frame roll, with still no end in sight!

The students had previously learnt that in Surgical Techniques - one of the medical courses - medical students practised surgical procedures on healthy dogs they then killed and subsequently threw away in the hospital garbage. Two of the five had then posed as journalism students and had been allowed inside the lab to take photos prior to the commencement of the surgery class. They were deeply saddened by the sight of the caged dogs awaiting their fates, and would later share their memories and photos with their friends.

And so it was that the five stood waiting outside the hospital for the end of the surgery class, wearing the white coats of medical students. They knew that the dogs were being sliced open and killed nearby. At one point they heard a dog’s deeply touching howl emanating from somewhere inside. Weighed down by a heavy sense of guilt and complicity, they waited in silence.

Finally, after a seemingly interminable wait, some medical students appeared carrying bulky and heavy-looking white plastic bags with red crosses on them. They carried them to the garbage building and left them there. Two more students came bearing more white plastic bags and left again. The waiting continued.

Eventually it was lunchtime. Once everybody was busy with their meals the waiting five walked into the garbage building and one of them broke in through a door into the biohazard area. There the plastic bags lay waiting, hidden amongst many others. However the correct bags were soon identified by touching them with a surgical glove. The dogs’ bodies could be easily felt inside.

These bags were then carried out of the other side of the building, to a safe area out of sight of the laboratory and surrounding buildings. They were still warm. With a knife, one student quickly opened the bags. One by one, the contents were revealed - five bodies, that had recently been five beautiful and healthy dogs - with still shining eyes. Whilst one student held up the dogs, three others took photos, and the remaining student stood watch. Two of the students recognised some of the dogs as dogs they had previously known. One of these was a black and white dog that had his mouth cruelly tied shut by a tight string.

The photographers had almost finished their grisly work when a man in a small tractor came to throw more garbage into the building. They kept calm, talking and acting like students that needed to record more details about their last class. The worker looked to the students and to the dogs’ bodies with some curiosity, but left after finishing his job.

Finally the photographers finished, and with a feeling of despair, threw the dogs’ bodies into a small river nearby, and returned home in silence. Two of them were crying. Later that evening one of them wrote a small and moving poem entitled “A poem for the garbage”.

Soon afterwards the photos and poem were delivered anonymously to the offices of the university newspaper. The story was published a few days later, and the scandal involving the use of dogs at the university began to unfold. The photographs shocked the general public and university community into an awareness of the issue. There was widespread media coverage and the word “alternatives” constantly appeared in the media and in debates in a positive way. This author was asked to speak on national television about the case. As of 2001 these pictures and accompanying writings are still published on some web sites.

At one point a debate was organised in the biggest auditorium in the university. It was completely filled. The discussion ran for four hours, and stopped only when the auditorium closed. The speakers and audience comprised students, academics and the general public. There were people from a wide range of disciplines, including biology, philosophy and human medicine. A video was shown in which previous medical students stated that during the same course (Surgical Techniques) it was sometimes very uncomfortable for them to work, due to the howling of the animals. One of them described a scene in which a dog stood up on the table in the middle of a surgical procedure, after prematurely recovering from the anaesthesia.

The repercussions of this case included a lawsuit against the university by the Attorney General, demanding more control in its use of animals. According to the Attorney General, “man is not anymore the owner and lord of all forms of life. Now we should favour a conception of harmonic life among the planet’s living creatures”. The titular professor and surgeon responsible for the course, Dr. D’Acampora, argued that it was impossible to teach surgery in any other way, but to no avail. Formerly about 200 dogs from city pounds were killed each year in that course. As a result of this lawsuit a permanent Ethics Committee on the Use of Animals was established, and the use of animals in that course and many others was provisionally stopped due to the court decision. As of 2002 some of the labs have been recontinued, but, although I don’t know for sure, I hope that less dogs are being used than before. And at least one humane alternative has been introduced into the course: the suture-arm, which is a plastic arm with artificial wounds that students can practise suturing up.

As of 2002 the students responsible for the pictures are unknown to the police and university staff. The details in this story were taken from an anonymous letter received by the author, together with copies of about 30 pictures.


Choosing a strategy

These stories demonstrate two powerful ways of bringing the harmful use of animals in education to the attention of the media and the academic community. In the first story, the students identified themselves as the perpetrators of their actions, and deliberately drew their actions to the attention of the media and the academic community. In the second, the students carried out their actions anonymously and trusted people from the media and the university to tell their story for them.

Some important words of warning should be added. Actions like these can be very beneficial, but can carry great risks. Students can be expelled from their universities if the proper precautions are not taken. Even a single photograph published in a newspaper could result in expulsion from a university. Such an event contributed to the expulsion of University of Colorado medical student Shana Dodson in 2000, when Shana released a photograph of a physiology dog vivisection lab. Students should always carefully weigh the likely risks against the probable gains. If the risks are too great, the actions should perhaps be conducted anonymously, or even wisely abandoned.

All these considerations should be contextualised within the reality of the students involved in the actions; for example, their involvement with the student rights movement, and their relationships with their classmates and professors. Students may then reach the feeling that things will work out with a good chance of success. However, no matter how well planned they may be, we can never know with surety all the outcomes of our actions.

And to be honest, and as some will have noticed, the actions I was involved in, namely the rescue of number 51, were not perfectly planned. But what helped a lot in my case was that I had a very good relationship with the biology student organisation from my university, and with the student rights movement, and also a nice relationship with some of the professors and university authorities, who previously knew my views on this issue. My knowledge of ethics and animal rights also helped me a lot in providing a sound justification of our actions.

Contextualise and good luck!