Dissection is the practice of cutting into and studying animals. Every year, millions of animals are dissected in elementary, secondary, and college science classes. Each animal cut open and discarded represents not only a life lost, but also a part of a trail of animal abuse and environmental havoc.
Frogs are the most commonly dissected animals below the university level. Other species used include cats, mice, rats, worms, dogs, rabbits, fetal pigs, and fish. The animals might come from breeding facilities that cater to institutions and businesses that use animals in experiments, or the animals might have been caught in the wild—they could also be stolen or abandoned companion animals. A PETA undercover investigator at one of the nation’s largest suppliers of animals used for dissection was told by his supervisor that some of the cats killed there were companion animals who had “escaped” from their homes. Slaughterhouses and pet stores also sell animals and animal parts to biological supply houses.
PETA investigators documented cases of animals who were removed from gas chambers and injected with formaldehyde without first being checked for vital signs (a violation of the Animal Welfare Act). (Formaldehyde is a severely irritating caustic substance that causes a painful death.) Investigators videotaped cats and rats who were struggling during injection and employees spitting on the animals. One rabbit, still alive after being gassed, tried to crawl out of a wheelbarrow full of water and dead rabbits. Employees laughed as a coworker held the rabbit’s head under the water and pulled him out just as death seemed near, repeating the process until, bored with the “game,” the employee held the animal’s head under long enough to drown him.
Killing Compassion Along With the Frog
Classroom dissection desensitizes students to the sanctity of life and can encourage students to harm animals elsewhere, perhaps in their own back yards. Serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer attributed his fascination with murder and mutilation to classroom dissections. In the last interview before his death, televised on Dateline NBC, Dahmer stated, “In ninth grade biology class, we had the usual dissection of fetal pigs. I took home the skeleton. Started branching out with dogs, cats—I suppose it could have turned into a normal hobby like taxidermy, but instead it became this. I don’t know why. It became a compulsion.”(1) According to Dahmer, he enjoyed the excitement and power he experienced when cutting up animals and fantasized about cutting up a human body.
Students with little to no interest in pursuing a career in science don’t need to see real organs to understand basic physiology. Those students who plan to pursue a career in biology or medicine would do better to study humans in a controlled, supervised setting or to study human cadavers, and there are plenty of other sophisticated alternatives, such as those provided by computer models, to using animals. In further support of these alternatives, students who are disturbed by the prospect of cutting up animals will be too distracted to learn anything of value during the dissection.
Students Speak Up
Many students are taking a stand against dissection before it happens in their classes.
“You don’t learn anything about an animal by cutting it up,” said Laurie Wolff, a Las Vegas grade school student who successfully petitioned the Clark County School Board to draft a student-choice amendment, providing students with alternatives to dissection. “It’s a waste when there are so many other ways to learn about science without having to kill something first,” she added.(2) Baltimore student Jennifer Watson, who was taken out of an honors class when she asked for an alternative to cat dissection but allowed back in after a protest prompted officials to reveal that she was entitled to an alternative, explained her actions simply: “I’ve loved animals my whole life. I was standing up for what I believe in.”(3) Ashley Curtis failed a lab exercise in her Minnesota school when she refused to come to class on the day when dissection was scheduled. She said, “I don’t think any animals should go through any suffering for education.”(4)
The curriculum director of Santa Fe’s Public Schools, where a ban on dissection is under consideration, said, “There is really no reason in this day and age to carve up animals. I support [the students] actually.”(5)
Nearly a dozen states, including Virginia, New York, Pennsylvania, Florida, and California, along with numerous school districts, have enacted laws or policies protecting a student’s right not to dissect.(6) Animal dissection has been banned in Argentina, Israel, and India.(7)
The typical science lab at many schools now emphasizes computer simulations, interactive CD-ROMs, films, charts, and lifelike models rather than animal cadavers.
Students and teachers may choose from a wide range of sophisticated alternatives to dissection:
• DissectionWorks comprises five interactive, computer-dissection simulations, including those of a frog, crayfish, perch, and fetal pig. A digital cat dissection with detailed graphics and information is also available.
• The Digital Frog is a fully interactive CD-ROM that allows students to explore the frog through three seamlessly linked modules—dissection, anatomy, and ecology. • Body Works offers a fascinating computer program that explores the body’s systems, structure, and functions.
• Sniffy, the Virtual Rat is a unique computer program that allows students to explore the principles of operant psychology using a “virtual rat.”
• CatLab is a fully interactive, multimedia dissection of a cat.
• Great American Bullfrog is a large-scale model with numbered parts and a key card. Circulatory, reproductive, and other systems can be separately dissected.
• Biology Chart Series includes detailed charts of a dissected frog, perch, crayfish, grasshopper, earthworm, etc.
Many books also offer humane science lessons. The Anatomy Coloring Book, The Zoology Coloring Book, and From Guinea Pig to Computer Mouse: Alternative Methods for a Progressive, Humane Education are appropriate for high school and college students.
Most non-animal tools and lessons last for many years and cost less than maintaining a constant supply of animals. Because computer methods allow students to learn at their own pace, they have proved to be as good as, and often superior to, dissection as a learning tool. One university professor who compared students using an interactive “frog” computer program with those cutting up real frogs found that students using the virtual program learned anatomy just as thoroughly—in an environment that didn’t reek of formaldehyde or require killing a living being.(8) Even the vice president of one of the country’s largest animal supply companies conceded, “Dissection is no longer cutting edge.”(9)
A comprehensive list of alternatives to dissection is available from the National Anti-Vivisection Society (NAVS) at 1-800-888-NAVS. You may also wish to contact the Ethical Science Education Coalition, at 617-367-9143, which offers “Beyond Dissection: Innovative Tools for Biology Education,” a comprehensive catalog with information on hundreds of humane alternatives to dissection.
What You Can Do
Whether you are a student, a parent, or a concerned taxpayer, you can act to end dissection in your town’s school system. If you are expected to perform or observe a dissection, talk to your teacher as early as possible about alternative projects.
Contact PETA for a free “Cut Out Dissection” pack or call the NAVS dissection hotline, 1-800-922-FROG (3764), for tips on what to say and how to proceed. If there is an animal rights group at your school or in your community, ask it to help. Parents can urge their local Parent-Teacher Association to ask the superintendent of schools or school board to consider a proposal to ban dissections in public schools or at least give all students the option of doing a non-animal project. It may help to collect signatures on a petition and present the school board with information on the cruelty and environmental destruction caused by animal dissection. Be sure to provide readily available alternatives. If you can, arrange to show PETA’s video on biological supply companies, “Classroom Cut-Ups.”
1) Stone Phillips, interview with Jeffery Dahmer, Dateline NBC 29 Nov. 1994.
2) Emily Richmond, “School Board Approves Dissection Waivers,” Las Vegas Sun 12 Apr. 2002.
3) David Crary, “Students Refuse to Dissect Animals,” Associated Press, 1 Oct. 2002.
4) “Of Mice and Frogs: Dissection Questioned,” Star Tribune 21 Jan. 2004.
5) “Schools Might Stop Dissecting Real Animals,” Santa Fe New Mexican 21 May 2003.
6) George Basler, “Learning From the Inside Out; Opinions Are Divided Over Dissection, but Most Students Decide to Do It,” Press and Sun-Bulletin 2 Nov. 2004.
7) “Metro: In Brief,” The Washington Post 6 Sep. 2004.
8) Beverly Orndorff, “Computer Program Is a Frog Saver,” Richmond Times-Dispatch 5 Apr. 1994.
9) Suzanne Sataline, “Cutting Edge Biology in Many Schools, Dissections Are Giving Way to Computer Simulations,” The Boston Globe 31 Dec. 2003.