Opinion | End the unethical killing of animals in military training

People around the world were shocked recently when news broke that the Danish Ministry of Defence has medical personnel participate in an archaic training drill – callously nicknamed ‘Danish Bacon’ by UK military doctors who also attend the course – in which live pigs are shot with high-velocity bullets to inflict life-threatening, multi-organ injuries and bone fractures.

The Ministry of Defence is violating the law and perpetuating the myth that shooting animals helps save human lives on the battlefield. The truth is that having military personnel try to repair the wounds of pigs who have been violently injured on a firing range does not help humans.

The author is a media specialist for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and a former US navy hospital corpsman

During my seven years of active duty as a US navy hospital corpsman – including as a member of the United States Naval Hospital Yokosuka, Japan’s Special Medical Operations Response Team – I never trained on any live animals. My own comprehensive training in the Navy included videos, immersive drills with lifelike simulators and moulage scenarios with human actors. And I have never been unprepared to treat life-threatening injuries to fellow service-members.

This is not just a matter of personal opinion.

Earlier this year, PETA US and current and former US military doctors published a study in a prestigious military medical journal showing that 22 out of 28 NATO nations do not use any animals for military training. Germany, whose armed forces are among the majority that have confirmed that they don’t use animals, has even repeatedly denied applications by the US army and its contractors to conduct military training on animals on the grounds that it would violate German and EU laws requiring the use of alternatives to animals whenever available.

Likewise, the NATO Centre of Excellence for Military Medicine, designated as the primary source of expertise for the NATO Alliance’s medical community, has also confirmed that its battlefield medical courses do not use animals. It wrote to PETA US that it “does not use animals, alive or dead, or animal models for any training or course or is involved in any partner course doing so. Where needed for specific training, appropriate human patient simulators are used.”

These laudable decisions to use only modern non-animal military training methods are supported by scientific research. More than a decade’s worth of studies by military and civilian trauma experts show that lifelike simulators – the best of which “breathe”, “bleed”, and are made of artificial human skin, fat and muscle – better equip trainees to treat human traumatic injuries, in terms of both skill acquisition and psychological preparedness.

This is because there are vast differences in anatomy and physiology between humans and pigs that make the former extremely poor models for human injuries, especially given the superior human-based simulators available. For example, the pressure required to apply a tourniquet effectively to the small amputated legs of pigs is enormously different from what is needed to stop the haemorrhagic bleeding of a human’s arms or legs. Likewise, pigs have much thicker skin than humans and the anatomy of their internal organs, blood vessels and airway is unlike humans, so repairing blast or gunshot wounds that these animals have sustained does not simulate the skill needed for saving human lives.

Indeed, in a 2009 internal email obtained by PETA US, a deputy surgeon with US Army Europe candidly admitted to colleagues that “there still is no evidence that [trauma training on animals] saves lives”.

In view of this mounting evidence, it is perplexing that defence minister Nick Haekkerup would state, as he recently has to the media, that “if you did not complete the exercises, it would mean a greater risk that some of our soldiers were either more maimed or died from gunshot wounds, because they faced less experienced doctors.” 

It is feasible for Denmark to train its armed forces without harming any animals, and there are also legal requirements to do so. Danish animal protection law states that “animals must not be used for experiments when the use of cell, tissue or organ cultures or other methods are deemed to be equally appropriate”. Similarly, EU regulations state that “member states shall ensure that, whenever possible, a scientifically satisfactory method or testing strategy, not entailing the use of live animals, shall be used instead of a procedure.”

There is no scientific, ethical or legal justification for harming and killing animals in military trauma training exercises. The preference for and widespread use of sophisticated non-animal training methods by military and civilian facilities around the world is proof that these methods are viable full replacements for the use of animals. 

For the sake of animals, service people and the civilians relying on troops for life-saving medical treatment, ending the use of animals in military training is a morally sound policy decision.