WASHINGTON — The Pentagon plans to halt the use of live animals in a variety of medical training programs, according to internal documents, putting it on a path to join the civilian medical community and most Western militaries, which have already banned such practices.
The military has been instructed to instead use substitutes such as a realistic human dummy developed by a research team from Boston. Such training is designed to teach medical personnel how to administer anesthesia, resuscitate an unconscious person, and practice other life-saving procedures.
The new policy, laid out in a memorandum from the Pentagon’s top health official and set to go into effect Jan. 1, marks the most significant effort to date to reduce the number of animals that critics say have been mistreated in military laboratories and on training bases — from the poisoning of monkeys to study the effects of chemical warfare agents, to forcing tubes down live cats’ and ferrets’ throats as part of pediatric care training for military medical personnel.
“This is the first time that a major shift away from animal use has been dictated across the entire Department of Defense,” said Justin Goodman, director of the Laboratory Investigations Department at People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA, which has been lobbying the Pentagon to end animal testing. “Now we have a situation where animal use will be completely prohibited in a number of key medical training areas.”
Yet the steps stop short of ending all animal testing by the military. The armed forces will still be allowed to replicate battlefield trauma by shooting and blowing up goats, pigs, and other animals to gauge the impact of particular types of weapons. The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, a nonprofit advocacy group, has estimated that the military uses at least 8,500 animals every year in its combat trauma training courses.
For example, 300 goats were killed last year alone in such training at Fort Bragg in North Carolina, according to government figures cited by PETA.
In a report to Congress last year, the Pentagon justified the continued use of live animals in combat training for medics, saying that ending all such use “would likely degrade combat trauma care on the battlefield and would potentially increase warfighter fatalities from battlefield injuries.”
The restrictions on other forms of animal testing bring the military more in line with the civilian medical community, in which an estimated 98 percent of training programs and medical schools no longer use animals, according to Goodman.
It also more closely aligns the Pentagon with most of its NATO allies — 22 of 28 — which have prohibited the use of animals in medical training, most recently Poland.
The Pentagon, citing its highly decentralized system of labs and training facilities, cannot yet estimate how many fewer animals would be used under the new guidelines or how many could still be killed or injured in training exercises.
Outside specialists said they expect that the number of animals killed by the military will be reduced by thousands.
In a letter to PETA in late October, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said the changes are designed to ensure the military is applying the “best practices” and vowed that the Pentagon will be working to identify additional ways it can phase out other testing of live animal subjects.
The policy changes were welcomed by medical professionals, who say that new training tools are more effective than practicing on animals.
“They don’t behave exactly like people behave under those circumstances,” said Dr. John Pawlowski, assistant professor at Harvard Medical School and codirector of the Shapiro Simulation and Skills Center at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. “That is why I like the simulation, especially the simulations based on fundamental human physiology.”
One of the leading human simulators was developed in part by The Simulation Group, a partnership between Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard, and a nonprofit consortium of Boston-area teaching hospitals and universities called the Consortium for Integration of Medicine and Innovative Technology that also includes MIT. Pawlowski has worked with the group.
One model, called the “automatic casualty simulator,” was designed with guidelines laid out by Army medical officers to replicate a 190-pound man with realistic tissues that can simulate breathing problems, bleeding, chest trauma, and the effects of chemical or biological weapons on the anatomy — both during conscious and unconscious states. The simulator was licensed to a Canadian company, CAE Healthcare, as “Caesar.”
About 100 of them have been sold to the US and foreign militaries.
A series of recent research findings presented at a military medical symposium in August supported the view that lifelike human simulators, including Caesar, are more useful training tools than using live animals.
In ordering the changes, Dr. Jonathan Woodson, the assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, asserted in May that “there are sufficient simulation models available to meet medical education and training needs” in the areas identified.
Woodson’s spokesman did not respond to requests for an interview.
PETA has been pressing a series of individual military commands in recent years to halt various forms of animal testing.
For example, over the last two years it has successfully persuaded the Army and the Coast Guard to adopt policies that encourage the use of simulators. In one particularly controversial case last year, the Army stopped using monkeys in chemical warfare training exercises in which the subjects were gassed to see the physical and neurological effects of nerve agents.
“About 10,000 animals a year were being shot, blown up, and stabbed for surgical training exercises and there is absolutely no evidence that doing that produces proficient soldiers who are able to perform on humans on the battlefield,” said PETA’s Goodman. “These simulators are really superior in every way.”
Goodman said the organization, which has enlisted celebrities and dozens of members of Congress in its efforts, will continue to press the military to ban all animal testing.
Legislation proposed last year would require the Pentagon to phase out the use of animals in all combat trauma training.
“Using pigs and goats in live battlefield training is not the best option for our troops, and is inhumane treatment of animals,” said Representative Hank Johnson, a Georgia Democrat and the bill’s chief sponsor in the House, in a statement.
Bryan Bender can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeBender