Animal advocate in academia

Andrew Knight

I've been an active animal advocate ever since helping to launch Australia's campaign against the live sheep trade to the Middle East in the early 1990s. I'm from Perth, Western Australia, the world centre of the trade. The terrible conditions on the ships caused enormous suffering and the death of over 100,000 sheep each year out of more than five million exported, with a similar number dying in feedlots on arrival. I found it so rewarding to be doing something to help large numbers of suffering creatures that I essentially decided to make animal advocacy the focus of my life's work.

I completed the veterinary course at Western Australia's Murdoch University from 1997 to 2001. As an undergraduate I successfully campaigned for the introduction of humane alternatives to harmful animal use within the surgical and preclinical curriculum. Thereafter I was commissioned by two US animal protection organisations to critically review certain fields of animal research. Numerous scientific publications were published in 2006/08, including a prominent contribution to a debate within the British Medical Journal USA.

I continued to research and publish on a range of animal welfare topics, and in 2009 was appointed a Fellow of the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics. The centre aims to contribute to the developing field of animal ethics and welfare, particularly through its peer-reviewed Journal of Animal Ethics, and its Animal Ethics book series. I was asked to write my book ‘The Costs and Benefits of Animal Experiments’ for the series.

In 2010, I was awarded a PhD from Australia's Griffith University for a set of 16 academic publications critiquing animal research. In 2011 I was awarded European veterinary specialisation in Animal Welfare Science, Ethics and Law. And in 2012, after locuming as a small animal vet for nearly a decade, mostly around London, I was recruited to my current position at Ross University School of Veterinary Medicine (RUSVM).

More than anything else, my successes have resulted from the substantial body of academic publications on animal welfare issues I've built up over the years. This has not, however, been without certain costs in terms of work/life balance. For example, I've never had time to learn how to surf properly, which is quite embarrassing for an Australian, and could be problematic here in the Caribbean (if I ever had the time). But I can bodysurf!

At RUSVM, I coordinate one course and teach numerous others. My course focuses on veterinary practice management, jurisprudence, defensible practice and liability insurance, personal and practice finances, trends in veterinary student debts and starting salaries, communication and interview skills, and mental health. I also lecture in three other preclinical courses on subjects such as animal welfare and ethics, ethics in science, and veterinary career pathways.

Additionally, I'm the director of our clinical skills laboratory (CSL), which offers instruction on a wide range of small and large animal surgical and medical skills, along with other clinically important skills such as team work, communication, problem solving and critical reasoning. Some skills are taught in our theriogenology laboratory and communication simulation laboratory. Like many of our facilities the latter is state of the art, and includes a simulated veterinary practice reception area and two consultation rooms, complete with one-way glass and video recording. We use a wide range of models, mannequins and simulators for teaching surgical and medical skills in all semesters of the course before students enter their final clinical year, and develop new models as needed through our active research and development programme.

As director of the CSL I oversee much of our surgical and medical skills training, and support the work of six full-time technicians and three full-time faculty staff who work and teach within the CSL. On a weekly basis I attend CSL labs, partly to teach, but primarily to monitor the functioning of our many different laboratories.

I also regularly participate in our volunteer-run feral cat project, in which faculty veterinarians and closely supervised senior students surgically neuter feral cats. This helps to increase the health and wellbeing of these individual cats and, over time, also helps to reduce the feral cat population, which presents one of the biggest animal welfare problems on our island.

The best bit of my job, without a doubt, is teaching; in particular, facilitating that magical moment when the ‘penny drops’, and a student who has been struggling to understand a challenging concept finally succeeds. I love encouraging students to think critically and develop their own, defensible positions on the challenging multifaceted animal ethics dilemmas they will regularly encounter in practice.

I also love teaching surgery, especially helping students successfully complete their first spays. We never forget these momentous, stressful occasions, and it's a privilege to be able to help students through their own. It's so rewarding to see them gaining skill and knowledge, and developing good surgical and welfare standards, and justified confidence in their own abilities.

However, academia is not for those who lack the necessary patience to deal with administrative challenges. The administrative burdens are substantial and a source of great frustration to most of us who just want to teach, research and publish.

Anyone considering a career in academia should develop a long-term plan. I think perhaps the greatest secret to success is the ability to say no to the distractions that will come your way. This equates with the ability to focus on your goals, but I recommend balancing this with enough flexibility to alter your plan if really good opportunities unexpectedly appear. For a career in academia, this means gaining as many relevant qualifications, and publishing as many case reports, studies, reviews or even opinion pieces (supported by reason and evidence), as possible.

On a lighter note...

Fortunately, not all of my career is serious. I'm also working toward my specialisation in veterinary cryptozoology (DipCrypt), focusing on the medicine and surgery of animals considered extinct, or otherwise non-existent, by mainstream biologists. To date my studies have taken me to alpine summits in France, Peru and Scotland; to Loch Ness, Ireland, Prague, and even London's College of Psychic Studies. I've learnt so much about the natural environments of these ‘cryptids’.

The outstanding success of most of these trips has been only marginally diminished by the unfortunate absence to date of any actual cryptid encounters. Nevertheless, I remain determined to bring the benefits of modern medicine to the rarest and most wonderful of the world's creatures, no matter how many mountains I must climb, snow-fields I must ski, or tropical islands I must search; and no matter how much time I must — with the deepest of regrets — take off work.

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