Millions of animals are “purpose bred” or harvested from the wild each year just to be killed for use as dissection specimens. While classroom dissection may be a deeply rooted classroom tradition, it is not necessary to teach the life sciences.
Animal dissection has been used for biology instruction in American classrooms since the 1920s. It remains a prevalent practice, with 84% of educators reporting use of dissection as a teaching tool, according to a 2014 NAVS survey. The prevalent use of dissection in the classroom demonstrates how deeply rooted this classroom tradition is, despite the many reasons to object to this antiquated practice.
First and foremost, dissection teaches students that animal lives have little importance. Traditional dissection indoctrinates the idea that cutting open animals is “fun” and prioritizes “hands-on” exploitation of animals over teaching respect for living creatures.
Furthermore, statistics on the use of animals for dissection are not maintained in the U.S., so there is no way of knowing exactly what type of or how many animals are used. It is estimated that 6-12 million animals are either “purpose bred” or harvested from the wild for use as dissection specimens.
You may count yourself among the growing number of biology students who would prefer to use a humane dissection alternative in place of cutting into a once-live animal. But what can you do?
The first thing to do is to check whether your state already has a student choice law or policy in place. These laws protect the rights of students who object to participating in dissection exercises based on their moral beliefs. They ensure that students who request a non-animal alternative are provided one without jeopardizing their grade.
Whether your state protects your right to opt out of dissection or not, your best course of action is to start by talking with your teacher. We’ve put together information you can use to support your point of view.Download Action Packet
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, 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 as byproducts of unsustainable fishing methods like trawling and then sold to biological supply companies for a profit.
The collection of animals for dissection exercises is increasingly recognized for the negative consequences it can have on the environment. India, for example, banned dissection at the university level “to prevent the disruption of bio-diversity” and to maintain “ecological balance.”
In North America, the collection of frogs for use as dissection specimens has depleted many local populations, leading some areas—including Michigan, Wisconsin and all of Canada—to outlaw their commercial harvesting.
In addition, once dissection exercises are complete, specimens are often improperly disposed of in landfills, where they can leach harmful chemicals into the groundwater.
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. Dissection also requires the use of sharp cutting tools, such as scalpels, which pose further safety risks to students.
Educators who insist on using animal specimens rather than non-animal alternatives miss a valuable opportunity to teach their students about humane education and fail to implement the “3 Rs” principles of reduction, refinement and replacement of animal use. Use of an animal specimen teaches students that animals’ lives are disposable and have little importance.
We’re glad that you’re exploring alternatives to dissection. You may be ready to “make the leap” to dissection alternatives or you may just be getting started. Wherever you are on your journey, we have resources to help you move forward.
NAVS has compiled “action packets” for teachers and administrators that outlines the advantages of using humane alternatives and key talking points to share with colleagues, parents, students, and other important audiences.Download Action Packet