An animal rights organization launched a formal complaint with the United States Department of Agriculture against the University of Michigan Health System last week, charging that the use of cats and pigs in a Survival Flight course for nurses is cruel and illegal.

In the complaint filed by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, the organization calls for the USDA to investigate UMHS’s Survival Flight course. According to PETA Vice President of Laboratory Investigations Kathy Guillermo, the use of pigs and cats in the course is in violation of the Animal Welfare Act, which governs the treatment of animals in a laboratory setting.

“It’s indefensible and likely illegal for the University of Michigan to maim and kill cats and pigs,” Guillermo said in an interview.

But in a statement posted on the website of the Office of the Vice President for Research, UMHS defended the training methods used in the course and vowed to “cooperate fully” with the USDA investigation.

Guillermo said that though the organization filed the complaint to protect the rights of animals, she also believes the course doesn’t provide nurses with the best training available. Students would receive better training by using simulators instead of other tactics like “thrusting” a tube down a cat’s trachea, she said.

“Unlike deadly animal labs, simulators replicate human anatomy and simulators allow trainees to repeat procedures until they get good at them,” Guillermo said. “This is about a choice to provide sub-standard training for the nurses in this course.”

According to the statement, the University aims to provide the nurses with adequate training through the use of both human patient simulators and training sessions involving animals. In addition, officials have decreased the number of training sessions with animals and increased the use of simulators, the statement says.

“The procedures used on the animals during training are the same as ones that are performed on human patients, such as inserting a breathing tube or accessing blood vessels and body cavities for life support and other therapeutic purposes,” the statement reads. “Some of these procedures are the very same ones used routinely by veterinarians when treating animals at their clinics — for example, intubation of cats for spaying.”

The statement also states that most of the “small number of cats” used in the course are adopted afterward.

Despite the defense, Guillermo said PETA is still moving forward with the complaint and is waiting to hear the results of the USDA investigation. She added that since filing the complaint, the organization has heard from a number of concerned University alumni.

“We will be talking to them about how they can object to this and we will probably move forward with a campaign,” she said.

Guillermo added that the University’s course is “an anomaly” and that other institutions offering flight survival courses don’t use similar training methods involving animals.

“The University of Michigan is in the dark ages on this one,” she said.

However last December, a University team won a competition assessing flight survival skills for the third year in a row, according to a UMHS press release.

In January 2009, a different UMHS course came under fire for using dogs to practice life-saving procedures, when The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine — an organization funded by PETA — filed a complaint with the USDA alleging that the professor of the Advanced Trauma Life Support course lied to a University committee to get permission to use the dogs for the course. The complaint also alleged that the use of dogs as training dummies was in violation of the Animal Welfare Act.

Shortly after the complaint was filed, University officials announced that the class would stop using dogs and only use simulators for training instead.

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