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Animals Used in Education

Classroom Dissection

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 U.S. classrooms has taken place since the 1920s, and became more widely practiced with the establishment of the Biological Sciences Curriculum Study in the 1960s.

As the result of becoming an accepted teaching tool in U.S. schools—from the elementary level through college—for so many years, dissection is considered to be a deeply-rooted tradition in biology education. 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 dissection alternatives, such as models and computer software, 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 sciences 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 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, such as cats euthanized from animal shelters or fetal pigs that are byproducts 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 3Rs 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.”

The 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 can be hazardous to students.
Chemicals used to preserve biological specimens, even nontoxic formaldehyde substitutes, have been reported to cause headaches, drowsiness, and eye, nose and throat irritation in students performing dissection exercises. Also, dissection requires the use of sharp cutting tools, such as scalpels, which pose safety risks to students.

Dissection instills a view that animal life is expendable.
Educators who 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 3Rs principle of reduction, refinement and replacement of animal use. Use of an animal specimen when alternatives that can achieve the same learning objectives are widely available teaches students that animals’ lives are disposable and have little importance.

Dissection is economically wasteful.
Non-animal alternatives are far more economical than the use of dissection specimens in the long run because they can be used repeatedly and indefinitely with no need to constantly replenish (and pay for) supplies of once-live animals.

With the availability of innovative dissection alternatives, more can be done by the educational community to replace the use of animals in dissection exercises. Greater support of alternatives by teacher organizations, along with more widespread dissemination of information about alternatives and student choice policies, would better inform students and teachers about this important issue. Providing comprehensive information to educators about studies that have examined student learning with alternatives versus dissection, the cost of alternatives and where they can be borrowed or purchased, and curriculum guides that incorporate alternatives may change educators’ perceptions about alternatives and encourage their use. Simple changes to current policies, such as asking students to “opt in” to dissection rather than to “opt out,” or merely informing students of the availability of alternatives, may have a significant impact on the number of animals used in education. Additionally, more should be done to introduce legislation that mandates student choice in states that currently lack such policies.

Science Fairs

Unfortunately, many students conducting experiments for science fair projects use animals in their studies. Student science fairs, including the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF)—the largest science fair in the United States—permit their exhibitors to perform invasive experiments on animals. NAVS’ ultimate goal is to bring about an end to all such exhibits with constructive initiatives, such as our Humane Science Award, an honor that encourages scientific advancement without harming animals. Yet more progress is needed, of course, and NAVS continues its commitment to bringing about complete change in this realm.

Today, thanks to the efforts of NAVS and other animal advocates, more and more students are focusing their scientific efforts on research methods that do not rely on animal models. Just as biomedical research at universities and other institutions is changing, many projects at science fairs have also changed with the times, taking advantage of new technologies and innovations.

You Can Make a Difference!

Even if you’re not a student or teacher, and whether or not you have a background in science, there are positive, meaningful and effective steps you can take right now to help advance humane practices at science fairs:

  • Volunteer to be a judge at a local school or regional science fair.
  • Get involved in science fair planning at your local school.
  • Offer to mentor a student working on a project.
  • Encourage your own children, as well as children of friends and relatives, to enter their schools’ science fairs with projects that do not cause harm to animals.
  • Lobby your local science fair authorities to disallow invasive experiments on animals.
  • Spread this all-important message: Students can get excited about science without hurting animals.