Cadavers have played an important role in the advancement of human medicine. Early students sometimes paid grave robbers for bodies or took on that role themselves, as they were so desperate for the opportunity to learn about anatomy and disease in a time where autopsy was taboo.
Fortunately my equine science classmates and I don’t have to do any late night pet cemetery runs in order to learn about horses.
The majority of the time we are able to learn how to do procedures or study the behavior of our program’s horses, a small crew of animals with various pedigrees and medical histories. We also have a full-size horse skeleton; several horse skulls assorted bones, and prepared specimens at our disposal.
There are a group of mares that live at the equine reproduction laboratory that put up with gynecological exams and ultrasounds so we can learn how their anatomy changes to prepare for pregnancy. The stallions have also taught us how horses behave during the breeding season. Together, they have taught us how we can step into manage breeding to perpetuate bloodlines.
Occasionally, we have the opportunity to perform a necropsy on a recently euthanized horse that has been donated for the purpose of educating equine, pre-vet and veterinary students.
I’ve worked in a small animal veterinary practice and a wildlife rehabilitation center and participated in euthanization of terminally ill animals or animals with no quality of life or chance of recovery. It’s always sad for me. I suppose it brings up the mortality of my own beloved pets.
I can’t even begin to express my gratitude for the people who donated their horses to us for necropsy. It is very sad that these horses were so ill and had little or no quality of life. At the same time it is kind of wonderful that their death can serve a purpose, and can impart knowledge to young scientists.
The bodies are always handled with respect. It is a completely different learning experience to explore the anatomy of a horse through necropsy than from a lecture or book with pictures. The scale and the complexity and interconnectedness of the organ systems really illuminates how disease processes interfere and contract a life that could have gone on many years but for their specific problem. It helps us learn to recognize disease early, to see the damage it wreaks on the animal, to treat it more effectively in the future and will drive many of my peers to make new life-saving discoveries.
We respect the anonymity of the donors, but we want to thank them for contributing to our learning experience. It is not a sacrifice that everyone would or could make. It is a day I will never forget.