Dissection in the Classroom
The use of animals as dissection specimens in biology classrooms remains a prevalent practice in the United States, with 84% of pre-college biology educators reporting the use of dissection as a teaching tool, according to a nationwide survey of biology educators commissioned by NAVS in 2014. Defined as “the practice of cutting apart or separating tissue for anatomical study,” animal dissection for biology instruction in American classrooms has taken place since the 1920s and became more widely practiced with the establishment of the Biological Sciences Curriculum Study in the1960s.
As the result of becoming an accepted teaching tool in American schools, from the elementary level through college for so many years, dissection is considered to be a deeply-rooted tradition in biology education. And many continue to defend the tradition, asserting the importance of a “hands-on” experience and arguing that the exercise gets students excited about biology, and makes a complicated subject “fun.”
Because of that view of dissection, many people never stop to think about where animals used in dissection exercises come from, nor do they consider how many animals are used for this practice. In fact, statistics on the use of animals for dissection are not even maintained in the U.S., so there is no way of truly knowing how many animals’ lives are sacrificed every year. It is estimated that millions of animals of various species are “purpose bred” or harvested from the wild every year for the sole purpose of being killed for use as dissection specimens.
NAVS’ major objections to dissection include:
Dissection is academically unnecessary
Numerous studies have reported that students who utilize humane alternatives to dissection score as well or better on performance tests than students who participate in dissection.
No state board of education requires participation in dissection as a condition of graduation, and no college or university stipulates dissection participation as a prerequisite for entrance.
A number of countries—including the Netherlands, Switzerland, Argentina, Slovak Republic and Israel—no longer conduct dissection exercises. India also recently banned the dissection of animals in zoology and life science university courses, because alternatives can be used to meet the same learning objectives.
Dissection harms animals
While the exact number is unknown, dissection requires the killing of an estimated 6-12 million animals annually in the U.S. alone. Some students and educators do not have issues with dissection if they are using “ethically-sourced” animals, like cats euthanized from animal shelters or fetal pigs that are by-products of the food industry. However, it should be noted that frogs—the most commonly used animals for dissection exercises—are harvested and killed specifically for biological study. Fish and sharks are also captured from the wild by fishermen who sell their dead bodies to biological supply companies to make a profit.
Given efforts in other areas to implement the 3 R’s principle of Russell and Birch to reduce, refine and replace the use of animals whenever possible, much more can be done to replace the use of animals in education, without sacrificing student knowledge. With the widespread availability of dissection alternatives, there is no need to continue to harm animals for the purpose of animal dissection.
Dissection is hazardous to the environment
The collection of animals for dissection exercises has negative consequences on the environment. India banned dissection at the university level “to prevent the disruption of bio-diversity” and to maintain “ecological balance.”
Collection of frogs to be used as dissection specimens has depleted many local populations, leading some areas—including Michigan, Wisconsin and all of Canada—to outlaw their commercial harvesting.
Dissection instills a view that animal life is expendable
Educators that insist on using animal specimens rather than non-animal alternatives as teaching tools miss a valuable opportunity to teach their students about humane education and are not implementing the 3R’s principle—reduction, refinement, and replacement—regarding the use of animals. Use of an animal specimen, when alternatives that can achieve the same learning objectives are widely available, teaches students that animal lives have little importance.
Dissection is economically wasteful
Non-animal alternatives are far more economical than use of dissection specimens in the long run because they can be used over and over again, with no need to constantly replenish (and pay for) supplies of once-live animals.