Higher Learning? : Animal Dissections in Classrooms Across America

Keisha Sapphire Holgate

In many ways, dissection of animals in schools has evolved tremendously, yet in other ways it has remained exactly the same as it was 100 years ago. Each year, an estimated 10-12 million animals are used for dissection in classrooms across America. Currently, in 18 states and counting, students in Kindergarten through the 12th grade have laws and policies that legally give them a choice about whether or not to participate in classroom activities harming animals. In New York state, New York Consolidated Law Article 17 § 809(4) allows a student to object on moral or religious grounds to participate, or even witness, an animal dissection without penalization of a failing grade in school. The law requires this objection to be in writing by the student’s parent or legal guardian. The NY state law ensures that an alternative is provided for the abstaining student to allow the same learning experience as students in the classroom. These alternatives include virtual computer models with 3-D replications of the dissected animal’s organs, actual 3-D models or diagrams. As technology advances, these alternatives have been upgraded to work on laptops, whiteboards, tablets and importantly can include comparisons to human anatomy.

The strides made, offering legal and academic protections for high school-aged and younger students, are a victory for anti-dissection advocates but no such collective protections exist for undergraduate and higher education students. Each institution is able to determine their own individual policy regarding the choice for a student to participate in dissection and the consequences of that choice. Hofstra University for example, allows a moral objection for students in their Biology major/minor program protecting them from the “sacrifice” of flies or other animals. However, unlike the NY education law allowing objection from even witnessing the dissections, Hofstra requires the abstaining student to participate in the lab activity. This participation can range from testing genes obtained in the dissection or taking photographs of the dissection, but refusal to participate can affect the student’s grade. Hofstra has changed their policy to no longer mandate that the abstaining student witness the initial incision into the animal. The example of Hofstra University shows the struggle between respect for a student’s moral oppositions to animal dissection and the university’s objective to adequately educate the student.

The purchase of animals for dissection creates an industry that’s sole purpose is the sale of dead animals that will be cut apart. Fetal pigs, frequently used in classroom dissections, often are obtained from slaughterhouses. Female pigs who are pregnant are slaughtered for their meat and their fetuses are then sold for dissection. This cycle of death, from slaughterhouse to biological supply company to the classroom, can have an unforeseen effect on students participating in animal dissection. One can argue that animal dissection should not be performed by students below the medical or veterinary school level. There is little benefit for a young student who is not interested in the medical or veterinary field to experience animal dissection. The correlation between animal and human anatomy is controversial at best and the current quality of available alternatives to dissection is constantly improving. There have been studies that show negative psychological effects, such as anxiety and stress, in students who dissect animals. Students seeing animals used as a means to an attenuated educational end can potentially become desensitized to animals as sensitive beings capable of suffering.

Veterinary schools around the country are trying to reconcile the goal of the care and treatment of animals with the need for practical hands-on experience in the anatomy of animals. Conventional practices required the killing of healthy animals to allow for dissection by veterinary students or worse, the practice of medical procedures on healthy living animals. Current innovations in veterinary training allow for the use of healthy living animals that stay that way at the end of study. The Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University is spearheading this humane veterinary training. Tufts was the first veterinary school in the United States to ensure that healthy animals were not killed or subject to invasive procedures. When hands-on invasive experience isrequired, there is a focus on obtaining dogs that were going to be put to sleep for medical reasons and horses that were marked to be sold to the slaughterhouse. While animals are still dying and being used in the classroom for dissection, this approach is a shift from the use of animals that were bred purely to be used in veterinary schools and then euthanized at the end of their use.

Classroom dissections have indeed come a long way from the ubiquitous presence of frogs and fetal pigs in every middle schools and high schools across America. In many states these students now have a choice about what their role is in the dissection of animals. While undergraduate colleges, medical and veterinary schools have also come a long way from the days of “dissect or fail”, many schools while not fully supporting the industry of dissections, support the practice of dissection. Until every student, in every state, at every education level is given the choice to not dissect, animals will continue to be killed for “educational” purposes.


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