Not Making the Cut

Animal dissection has been routinely practiced in American biology classrooms for decades. It continues to be a common practice, despite the availability of modern, non-animal teaching methods that have been recognized to be more effective and less expensive than traditional animal dissection.

As a result, millions of animals are used as dissection specimens every year, many of whom were killed specifically for this purpose. More needs to be done to spare the lives of these animals, while delivering a quality education to students.

NAVS has long confronted this problem by serving as a resource for valuable information about dissection alternatives and student choice measures for students, teachers and parents. Some of our earlier efforts involved the establishment of a Dissection Hotline and BioLEAP—the Biology Education Advancement Program. The former gave advice on establishing student choice policies, talking to teachers about opting out of dissection and using alternatives in the classroom. The latter emphasized the availability of educational resources that can facilitate a student’s understanding of anatomy, physiology and the life sciences without harming animals, along with promoting student choice initiatives

Recently, we have focused our efforts on administering surveys to students and teachers to better understand the current use of animal dissection and alternatives and attitudes toward the practices. This information has greatly helped us identify obstacles that hinder the wider use of dissection alternatives. Through these surveys, we have learned that the majority of biology educators feel that information about dissection alternatives is not widely disseminated, have not been notified about whether their state has a student choice measure in place, and have not been taught about the “3R’s” (reduction, refinement and replacement) of animal use during their education to become a science teacher.

Our surveys have also revealed that biology teachers continue to hold strong opinions about the benefits of dissection, and that they have concerns about the effectiveness of alternatives. We believe that one reason they may hold these views is because of the stance that some science educational organizations have about dissection and alternatives. For instance, the National Association of Biology Teachers (NABT) has an outdated Position Statement regarding the Use of Animals in Biology Education.

The current statement, last updated in 2008, indicates that the NABT supports the use of dissection alternatives as adjuncts to the educational process but not as exclusive replacements for the use of actual organisms.

Support of alternatives as replacements to animal dissection from science educational organizations, combined with broader dissemination of information about alternatives, would likely encourage more educators to use alternatives in place of animal dissection. Therefore, NAVS has joined a coalition of several other animal welfare organizations to put pressure on NABT to reconsider its position on dissection such that alternatives are viewed as full replacements for animal specimens, rather than as merely adjuncts to them. A similar effort is being made to reach out to the National Science Teachers Association to persuade them to review and revise their position on the use of alternatives.

NAVS is working hard to provide educators with comprehensive information about the advantages of using dissection alternatives and student choice measures. Each school year, we contact state boards of education and ask them to disseminate information we have compiled on alternatives and student choice to their teachers. We also attend teacher’s conferences so that we can chat one-on-one with biology teachers to provide them with resources that encourage the use of dissection alternatives to reduce animal use in education.

In addition to surveying teachers and students, NAVS has been submitting Freedom of Information Act requests to states around the country to better understand trends in dissection use.

One factor we have encountered is the disparity of use between rural versus urban areas and between wealthy versus poorer sections of the country. One such example is Colorado. There, as in many other states around the country, schools are governed by county boards of education. While there is also a state Board of Education, it does not make decisions regarding the operation of the schools in the state.

After sending Colorado Open Records Act (the state version of a Freedom of Information Act) requests to 175 county school boards, NAVS received only 67 responses. Some schools refused to respond without payment (up to $250 for a single school), or responded to only some of the questions asked. Nearly two-thirds failed to respond altogether.

Of the school boards that did respond, 13 told NAVS that they did not dissect animals at all. The most common reason for this was low budget and the small size of the school system. In urban areas, including a majority of responding school districts in the Denver area, dissection use was rampant. Only some of these schools allow students to opt out of dissection, and very few of those schools have a written policy available. Of the schools that do dissect, the amount of money spent on dissection specimens varies from $0 (small number of donated specimens) to $3,400 per year.

In Wisconsin, we received responses from 140 out of 443 districts contacted. Those districts reported spending a total of over $100,000 annually on animal dissection, excluding large school districts which reported spending $500-$5,000 per school. Additionally, over 90% of Wisconsin school districts do not have a written policy accommodating student requests to opt out of dissection, or to use a dissection alternative.

NAVS uses the information we gain from these FOIA inquiries to craft strategies for promoting student choice. Our CHOICE (Compassionate Humane Options in Classroom Education) initiative was launched to encourage states without a student choice law or policy to consider introducing one. Our efforts have gotten student choice bills introduced in a number of states over the last few years, although we have faced formidable opposition to passage of this type of legislation.

Collecting data—on dissection use, the lack of written policy and the high cost of dissection—is one way we persuade legislators to consider introducing this legislation. While, ultimately, we are confident that classroom dissection will be considered an archaic educational tool, we are not willing to wait for that to happen. Instead, we work to identify problems and engage educators and legislators by providing them with solutions to improve every student’s classroom learning experience.

We believe that no animal should have to suffer for any student to obtain a good education. And we hold that no student should be asked to be responsible for an animal’s suffering as part of that education.

In the short term, we are working to ensure that no student is forced to make a choice between compassion and a passing grade. Over the long-term, we hope to engage educators throughout the country in exploring and adopting the use of educational resources that excite and motivate learning without the use of once-live animals.

Many innovative alternatives already exist, and more are being developed every year. This fall, Intel launched a nationwide “virtual reality experience” tour to demonstrate immersive technologies such as virtual reality and augmented reality that can take the place of—and even improve upon—activities such as traditional classroom dissection.

You can help in this effort by advocating for student choice in your local schools, and, if your state does not already have a student choice law or policy in place, through your state legislature. And whether or not your state has a student choice policy in place, you can help spread the word about exciting learning opportunities that do not rely on animal specimens.

Be sure to visit the NAVS Advocacy Center at for opportunities to promote legislation or a statewide policy in your state. Help NAVS bring science education into the 21st century with compassion.

This entry was posted in News on December 7, 2018.
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