Thousands of animals have died in combat medic training exercises, spurring a decades-long debate between the Pentagon and animal activists. But activists scored a win this month when the Army announced that it will bar nonmedical soldiers from participating in trauma training using live animals.

The change is one of several brought about by a review of medical readiness training, according to emails between People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and Army officials, which were supplied to The Fayetteville Observer in North Carolina.

According to PETA media coordinator Tasgola Bruner, the animal advocacy organization recently discovered a shift in the Army’s policy regarding the use of animals in training drills.

A Department of Defense document released in March states that “Non-medical personnel are not authorized to participate in training that involves the use of animal models.”

Instead, nonmedical personnel will use training mannequins, actors and virtual simulators.

The debate

While the military argues that the goats, pigs and other animals — which are shot, stabbed, bludgeoned and blown up, according to activists — are anesthetized and haven’t died in vain, activists say the practice is cruel and that human simulators can effectively replace live animals.

PETA says it has obtained an internal email sent by a deputy surgeon with the U.S. Army, which states “there is still no evidence that [training on animals] saves lives.”

Thomas Poulton, a Texas anesthesiologist who served in the U.S. Navy Medical Corps and took civilian trauma training courses that used dogs, echoed this sentiment to The Washington Post.

“In terms of actually learning skills, eye-hand coordination or learning much intellectually, it didn’t really add anything I wasn’t already learning,” he said. “These were healthy dogs from the pounds and healthy farm animals.”

However, Michael Bailey, a former Army combat medic who served in Iraq after taking basic courses that didn't involve animals, disagrees. He told The Washington Post that the first time he treated a casualty after an artillery attack, he froze.

Later, he took a course in which he treated a sedated goat’s bleeding femoral artery after an instructor slashed it. Bailey said the exercise provided him with a sense of urgency.

“You don’t get that feeling from a mannequin,” he said.

Beginning of change

Despite Pentagon statements that live-animal medical exercises saves lives on the battlefield, current military policies could be about to change, thanks to activists.

Last year, PETA, along with current and former military doctors, polled all NATO nations and published a study in the journal Military Medicine showing that only six alliance members use live animals in combat medic training.

But what got the most attention was the animal advocacy group’s video of Coast Guard training exercises that showed an instructor whistling as he severed a goat’s limbs with tree trimmers. The video triggered a federal investigation, and the company was cited for violations of the federal Animal Welfare Act.

Such evidence has spurred citizens and lawmakers to lend support for a change in combat medic training policies.

In February, President Obama signed the National Defense Authorization Act into law, which contained a demand that the Pentagon must present Congress with a written plan to phase out “live tissue training.” The report was originally due March 1 but has been delayed until June.

However, change might still be slow to come. In February, the Army announced a $5 million contract bid for goats to use at U.S. combat medic training facilities over the next five years.

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Laura Moss writes about a variety of topics with a focus on animals, science, language and culture. But she mostly writes about cats.

Military limits use of live animals in combat medic training
Thousands of goats, pigs and other animals die annually in training exercises. The military says such training saves lives.