The Office of University President Mary Sue Coleman was bombarded with a flood of phone calls and e-mails on Tuesday as hundreds of people took time to voice their concerns about the University of Michigan Health System’s use of live animals in a Survival Flight course for nurses.

Animal rights activists have been criticizing the University’s use of pigs and cats in the course for several months. The class teaches students advanced, life-saving procedures. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals — the world’s largest animal rights group — is leading the campaign.

But despite the criticisms, which were so numerous on Tuesday that a separate touch-tone phone menu was set up to screen calls in Coleman’s office, University officials say they do not plan to change the curriculum any time soon.

In an interview yesterday, University spokesman Rick Fitzgerald said the University would continue to use live animals as part of their Survival Flight course because the medical experts teaching the class believe it is necessary.

“The Medical School staff that teaches the class feels very strongly that this is an important part of this very specialized training” Fitzgerald said. “The training is critical and the University supports that continued training.”

However, Fitzgerald emphasized the University is complying with all applicable regulations in its care and treatment of animals used in the course.

Fitzgerald’s comments echo those made by University leaders, like Coleman, who responded to a question on the issue after her annual State of the University address in October by saying the University would continue the practice as long as those teaching the class felt it was necessary.

In an e-mail interview yesterday, a public relations official at the University of Michigan Health System reaffirmed UMHS’s support for the course’s practices.

“While nearly every aspect of the Survival Flight course uses simulators, for very specific procedures, using anesthetized animals is the only way we can ensure our Survival Flight nurses are capable and competent enough to perform those procedures in the field on humans, including babies,” the e-mail said.

The official requested anonymity because several individuals associated with the course have received threatening messages.

When asked why the Survival Flight class requires live animals when the University recently switched to using simulator in its Advanced Trauma Life Support class, the same UMHS official said the two classes were designed for different circumstances. UMHS stopped using live animals in its Advanced Trauma Life Support class, after Physician’s Council for Responsible Medicine — a non-profit organization that advocates for ethical methods of research — criticized the technique.

“While physicians do perform the same procedures, they do so in a controlled environment where ample back-up and support is at hand in emergency or operating rooms,” the UMHS official wrote.

“Survival Flight nurses must know how to do these procedures correctly the first time they are called upon to do so under extraordinary circumstances,” the official continued. “Nurses in Survival Flight are called upon to do things that even physicians with ATLS training are not asked to given the unique circumstances under which they are required perform.”

But Justin Goodman, associate director of laboratory investigations for PETA, said yesterday that the University’s use of animals in the Survival Flight course is a “relic” among peer programs.

“The University of Michigan’s Survival Flight Training course continues to mutilate and kill cats and pigs despite the fact that human-like simulators are available to replace the use of animals in this course and that they’ve been shown to better prepare trainees to treat human patients and that they’re endorsed by leading medical organizations across the country,” Goodman said.

Goodman said the Air and Surface Transport Nurses Association — an organization that seeks to advance the work of transport nurses by enhancing the level of patient care they provide — recently confirmed that of the 30 institutions offering its transport trauma courses in the country, only the University uses live animals.

“On all counts, the use of animals in this course is indefensible,” Goodman said. “It’s just a matter of time before it’s going to stop. But we’re hoping that we’re able to give them a gentle nudge and see that it’s ended sooner rather than later.”

Additionally Goodman said PETA’s campaign of phone calls, e-mails and other events at the University will not stop until the University changes its policy.

“The campaign will continue until the school commits to ending the use of animals in the course,” Goodman said, explaining that activity would likely slow down over the holiday break. “But when the next semester starts, the campaign will be in full force on campus again.”

Asked about Tuesday’s phone and e-mail drive aimed at grabbing Coleman’s attention, Goodman said he thinks the volume of calls would be difficult for Coleman to ignore.

“The inconvenience that Coleman’s office may have had to deal with (Tuesday) is nothing compared to the lives of pain and suffering that the animals in Survival Flight are forced to endure,” he said. “If we can cause them just a little bit of the discomfort that animals in labs are caused, then we’re doing a good job.”

PETA is not alone in its calls for the University to end its practice of using animals in the Survival Flight course. The Michigan Student Assembly passed a resolution last month urging the University to switch from using live animals in the course to the simulators used by other programs.

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