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Opinion: the unspoken lesson from Barbaro's death

February 6, 2007

by John D. Young, VMD, MS

Much has been written in the editorial pages regarding the need to euthanize Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro after treatment failed for a shattered right hind leg incurred at the 2006 Preakness race.

Initially, columnists and letter writers have expressed sincere regret and a sense of loss over the horse's death a heartfelt loss; now the commentary addresses the "lessons learned" from the horse's injury, treatment and death.

Many writers praise the recent efforts to place artificial turf on major race tracks acknowledging the fragile nature of a race horse's orthopedic structure. Some questioned the wisdom of the considerable cost of the treatment for a horse that had limited to chances to walk again. PETA - the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals - weighed in, demanding that horse racing be banned.

Most veterinary medicine experts agreed that that what we have learned from Barbaro is likely to help horses who face similar injuries in the future.

What has not been acknowledged in all the post-mortem commentary regarding Barbaro's death is that the horse's eight months of treatment evolved from the contributions from thousands of physicians, veterinarians, scientists, and technicians engaged in humane but necessary research with laboratory animals in academia, government, and the private sector.

I have two reasons to be especially interested in Barbaro's story. I am a veterinarian. Those of us who treat animals naturally root for our patients as they try to beat difficult odds in recovering from devastating injuries. Also, I received my training at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, home of the George D. Widener Hospital for Large Animals. Barbaro was treated at that state-of-the-art facility by Dr. Dean W. Richardson, Chief of Surgery, and his dedicated staff.

As a director of a major animal research facility, I find that many are surprised to hear that that most of the first-stage research in veterinary and human medicine is not with horses and other large animals. Purpose-bred mice and rats constitute more than 95 percent of the animals used in the development of new procedures and medicines benefiting horses, pets, livestock, wildlife, and yes, even human beings.

When Barbaro was put down, Dr. Richardson told reporters "We learned a lot," adding, "This is the way science works and the way medicine works - a gradual accumulation of information and expertise." In veterinary medicine, the humane but necessary research with laboratory animals in academia, government, and the private sector is essential in achieving that gradual accumulation and information for science to advance.

Dr. Richardson cared deeply for his patient. Those of us directly involved in biomedical research care deeply for the welfare of the animals in our facilities. Responsible researchers use laboratory animals only when necessary, and when they do, work to minimize the animals' stress and discomfort.

Unfortunately, those engaged in animal research all too often encounter harassment, intimidation, and slander from animal rights extremists. Only a few individuals commit unlawful acts, but even major animal rights organizations, funded in large part by animal lovers, seek to stop animal research through legislative initiatives, media campaigns and indoctrination of children with animal rights propaganda. Medical progress is being threatened and some of our best young minds are becoming reluctant to undertake a career in the life sciences.

Whether it is through the terroristic actions of a few, or the well-financed efforts of large national groups, if the scientific community is prevented from studying animals in responsible, humane and necessary research, the result will be the same - the end of advances in the treatment of disease and alleviation of pain and suffering for both animals and humans.

These researchers will go on, building upon what was learned in Barbaro's case, developing new treatments and medicines. Someday, we hope, horses will no longer need to be routinely euthanized as soon as they suffer a crippling injury, or as they develop laminitis. Treatments such as we saw Barbaro receive will be refined, and become more commonplace, more widely available to horses everywhere.

Barbaro is now a legend. His noble spirit will be remembered by horse lovers everywhere. But his story is not yet over: what researchers have learned in treating Barbaro will help generations of horses to come.



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