Top 3 Pros and Cons of Animal Dissection

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Source: Evan-Amos, “A Young Teen Girl in New York Shown Dissecting an Animal Eye as Part of a Class Based on Teaching Students about Optics,” wikimedia.org, Oct. 20, 2012

Dissecting a frog might be one of the most memorable school experiences for many students, whether they are enthusiastic participants, prefer lab time to lectures, or are conscientious objectors to dissection.

The use of animal dissection in education goes back as far as the 1500s when Belgian doctor Andreas Vesalius used the practice as an instructional method for his medical students. [1]

Animal dissections became part of American K-12 school curricula in the 1920s. About 75-80% of North American students will dissect an animal by the time they graduate high school. An estimated six to 12 million animals are dissected in American schools each year. [2] In at least 18 states and DC, K-12 students have the legal option to request an alternate assignment to animal dissection. [3]

While frogs are the most common animal for K-12 students to dissect, students also encounter fetal pigs, cats, rabbits, guinea pigs, rats, minks, birds, turtles, snakes, crayfishperch, starfish, and earthworms, as well as grasshoppers and other insects. Sometimes students dissect parts of animals such as sheep lungs, cows’ eyes, and bull testicles. [2]

Are animal dissections in K-12 schools crucial learning opportunities that encourage science careers and make good use of dead animals? Or are animal dissections unnecessary experiments that promote environmental damage when ethical alternatives exist?

Should K-12 Students Dissect Animals in Science Classrooms?

Pro 1

Dissecting a real animal provides students with more learning opportunities.

87.5% of teachers polled agreed that “real animal dissection is important to the teaching of biology,” while 56.3% agreed that “there are no substitutes for real animal dissection.” [4]

Dissecting an animal offers education in fine motor skills, hand-eye coordination, and handling sharp objects carefully. Hands-on learning keeps students more engaged, which facilitates assimilation of information. [5] The American Psychological Association adds that animal dissection “engenders creativity, original thought, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills.” [6]

Using a real animal also helps to instruct students on the ethics of using animals in research. [4] Teachers can explain how the animals were sourced, demonstrate proper treatment of dead animals, and imbue a respect for life among students.

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Pro 2

Dissection can encourage students to pursue careers in science.

Vicki Besack, a high school science teacher in Florida, said, “Dissection … is an amazing hands-on experience,” adding that it “has the power to cause a student to change how they think about science and possibly what they may pursue as a career. It gives them that ‘aha’ moment.” [7]

Teachers report that students gain invaluable hands-on science experience from dissection, including putting on lab coats and gloves, handling scalpels, and looking at samples under microscopes. The entire process can spark inspiration and excitement. [8]

Julianna Music, a former high school student, argued in favor of dissection in the classroom by stating, “Biology is the study of life, and dissection is crucial for the understanding of life; it is a hands-on way to learn and paves a pathway for students with dreams of careers in that field… [I]t lays the foundation for possible discoveries in animal diseases and prepares young people to become future veterinarians.” One of Music’s classmates developed a desire to become an optometrist after dissecting a sheep eye in school. [9]

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Pro 3

Animal dissection is a productive and worthwhile use for dead animals.

A large portion of dissected animals were already dead before being allocated for dissection. Having students dissect the animals allows for a learning opportunity instead of just wasting the animal.

Bio Corp, a biological supply company, reported that more than 98% of the animals they received were already dead. Bill Wadd, Co-Owner of Bio Corp, stated, “We just take what people would throw away. Instead of throwing it in the trash, why not have students learn from it?” [10]

Most animals used in classroom dissections are purchased from biological supply companies. Some animals, such as cats, are sourced from shelters that have already euthanized the animals. However, cats and dogs account for fewer than 1% of lab animals. Fetal pigs are byproducts of the meat industry that would have otherwise been sent to a landfill. [11] [12]

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Con 1

Methods used to supply animals for dissections are bad for the environment and inhumane.

An estimated 99% of animals used in dissections are caught in the wild, a practice that may decrease local populations, lead to an imbalance in the ecosystem, and reduce biodiversity. [13] [14]

Fetal pigs used in schools are sourced from the meat industry and grown in horrific conditions. Animalearn, the educational arm of the American Anti-Vivisection Society, said, “they are deprived of space, fresh air, and fresh forage for the duration of their shortened lives… The fetuses that end up in the dissection tray are taken from pregnant sows at the slaughterhouse.” [11]

Animals sold to schools for dissection may have died by suffocation, electrocution, drowning, or euthanasia. Cats and dogs used for dissection are sourced from shelters that unnecessarily euthanize the animals instead of adopting them out to families. [11]

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Con 2

Medical studies do not require or benefit from animal dissection.

Animal dissection is not required by the College Board for AP Biology, the International Baccalaureate for IB Biology, or the Next Generation Science Standards. [15] The inclusion of dissection units actually dissuades some students from taking elective science classes. [7]

The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine says that “Animal dissection is not required for students to learn about and be engaged in science.” [15] The group found that no medical schools in the US or Canada use animals to train new physicians; revered medical programs at schools such as Stanford, Yale, Harvard, and the Mayo Clinic all use alternatives to animals. [15] [16] [17] [18]

Nedim C. Buyukmihci, Professor of Ophthalmology at the Veterinary Medicine School of the University of California at Davis, stated, “As one who did not dissect in high school, and who now is a veterinarian and trains doctors-to-be, I can unequivocally state that the experience of dissection is totally unnecessary for the biologically minded precollege student.” [19]

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Con 3

Dissecting real animals is unnecessary since alternatives exist.

Synthetic frogs made by SynDaver have the same visual and textural qualities as a dead female frog: skeletons with muscles, skin, and organs, including a reproductive system with eggs. The models can be reused year-after-year and don’t need toxic formaldehyde for preservation. Students can use the model multiple times to gain a deeper understanding of the animal’s anatomy. [20][21]

Technological advances have led to computer programs that can simulate the dissection of frogs, squid, fetal pigs, starfish, and cow eyes. [22]

According to a meta-review by the Humane Society, students learn just as well or better when models and computer simulations are substituted for dead animals. [22] Models and simulations also eliminate the “gross-out factor” of smelly, slimy real dead frogs, allowing students to focus on the learning activity rather than nausea. [23]

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American Bullfrogs are the most common frog dissected by American students.
Source: US Geological Survey, “American Bullfrog,” wikimedia.org, July 10, 2015

Discussion Questions

  1. Several cultures, including those of many Native American tribes [24], consider animal dissection taboo. Consider animal dissection as a cultural matter. Which communities disagree with animal dissection for cultural or religious reasons? What is their reasoning? How can schools accommodate these cultural views while promoting STEM studies and careers to the communities? Explain your answers.
  2. ProCon.org has listed three pros and three cons above. What other pros and cons can you list? Brainstorm a list and then choose one pro or con to research and write a sourced and cited paragraph to support.
  3. Have you had to (or will you have to) dissect an animal for science class in school? What are your thoughts? Will you perform the dissection or ask for an alternative assignment? Explain your answers.
  4. Biological supply companies often use formaldehyde to preserve animals for dissection. According to Ken Roy, writing for the National Science Teaching Association, formaldehyde is “a known nasal and dermal carcinogen” and can cause allergy-related symptoms. Roy cautions, “no specimens that are preserved in formaldehyde should be used in middle school science!” [25] What safety precautions should be taken if animals preserved in formaldehyde are used in high school or college classrooms? Should animals be preserved in another way? Explain your answers.

Take Action

1. Explore Carolina Biological Supply Company’s reasoning in favor of classroom dissections.

2. Determine whether your state has a student choice law or policy for dissection alternatives.

3. Consider dissection alternatives with the American Anti-Vivisection League.

4. Push for the position and policies you support by writing US national senators and representatives.

Sources

1.Sneha Mantri, “Holistic Medicine and the Western Medical Tradition,” journalofethics.ama.assn.org, Mar. 2008
2.Jan Oakley, “Under the Knife: Animal Dissection as a Contested School Science Activity,” Journal for Activist Science & Technology Education, 2009
3.American Anti-Vivisection Society, “Student Choice Laws,” aavs.org (accessed Apr. 2, 2020)
4.Jan Oakley, “Science Teachers and the Dissection Debate: Perspectives on Animal Dissection and Alternatives,” International Journal of Environmental & Science Education, Apr. 2012
5.Edu-Lab, “The Importance of Dissection in Biology,” edulab.com, Oct. 7, 2016
6.American Psychological Association, “Resolution Reaffirming Support for Research and Teaching with Nonhuman Animals,” apa.org, Aug. 2017
7.Nancy Averett, “High School Dissections Are a Science Class Tradition. But Are They Doing More Harm Than Good?,” discovermagazine.com
8.Thomas Henley, “My Best Science Lesson: Dissecting Cow Brains to Explore Intelligence,” theguardian.com, Oct. 29, 2013
9.Juliana Music, “PRO: Dissection Prepares Students for the Field of Biology,” wvgazettemail.com, May 2, 2014
10.Ted Gregory and Susan Berger, “Is Dissecting a Frog in Science Class Ethical? Protesters Challenge the Long-Standing but Controversial Practice,” chicagotribune.com, June 1, 2018
11.Animalearn, “Frequently Asked Questions,” animalearn.org (accessed Apr. 1, 2020)
12.Carolina, “Dissection FAQs,” carolina.com, Mar. 2018
13.National Anti-Vivisection Society, “Frequently Asked Questions,” navs.org (accessed Apr. 2, 2020)
14.Editors of E Magazine, “Harvest of Shame,” emagazine.com, July 20, 2004
15.Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, “Dissection Alternatives for Students,” pcrm.org, Feb. 22, 2019
16.Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, “Last Remaining Medical School to Use Live Animals for Training Makes Switch to Human-Relevant Methods,” pcrm.org, June 30, 2016
17.Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, “Tell UW to Modernize Its Medical Training,” pcrm.org (accessed Apr. 1, 2020)
18.Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, “Statement from the Physicians Committee on Johns Hopkins University Eliminating the Use of Animals in Medical Training,” pcrm.org, May 18, 2016
19.Ricki Lewis, “Instructors Reconsider Dissection’s Role in Biology Classes,” the-scientist.com, Nov. 9, 1997
20.Julia Jacobo, “Florida High School Unveils Synthetic Frogs for Dissection in Biology Class,” abcnews.go.com, Nov. 26, 2019
21.Mary Caton, “Villanova Students Try Hand at Virtual Frog Dissection,” windsorstar.com, Nov. 27, 2019
22.Nicole Shine, “The Battle over High School Animal Dissection,” psmag.com, June 14, 2017
23.AP, “Fake Frogs in School Dissections Eliminate Gross-Out-Factor,” wtop.com, Dec. 31, 2019
24.Deborah H. Williams and Gerhard P. Shipley, “Cultural Taboos as a Factor in the Participation Rate of Native Americans in STEM,” International Journal of STEM Education,” Apr. 11, 2018
25.Ken Roy, “Dissection: Don’t Cut out Safety,” nsta.org, Feb. 2, 2007