Vivisection means literally the cutting up of live animals for science. It is used interchangeably with the term animal experimentation. Essentially, it is using animals in ways that cause distress, harm, and/or death in attempts to test the safety of drugs and biological products or to find treatments, preventions, or cures for human diseases.
Dissection is the term used to describe the practice of cutting into dead animals for science education. Frogs are the most common species used in high schools. Dissection is a major contributor to the decline in U.S. frog populations. Because they will not breed productively in captivity, specimens are wild-caught. Populations from Mexico and other countries are also “harvested” causing environmental implications worldwide.
Estimates place the number of animals in the U.S. in the tens of millions (some estimate in excess of 25 million) that suffer, die, or are killed each year for experimentation, testing, and science education.
Although the intention of the Animal Welfare Act (AWA) is to ensure the "humane" care, handling, treatment and transportation of animals in laboratories, it does not offer protection for rats, mice, birds, farm animals, amphibians, or reptiles used in agricultural research. Yet, these species represent 90-95% of animals in labs. Animals used in elementary, secondary, and all other schools below the college level are also exempt.
Dissection in American schools began with the National Space Program in the late 1950s. Schools began routinely offering dissection labs as it was believed necessary for a future science career. Consequently, the numbers of live animals captured and otherwise obtained specifically for use in elementary and secondary school dissection increased enormously. Now, five decades later, advances in computer and imaging technologies, as well as life-like and functional model representations paired with a heightened environmental consciousness, require a re-evaluation of how best to teach life sciences. In many states, students have a choice to participate or not in animal dissection and may have the option or legally protected right to choose alternatives to meet curriculum requirements.
Alternatives to animal dissection comprise the latest advances in computer programming, including "virtual reality" dissection labs. These programs simulate actual dissections, offer an interactive experience, and provide extensive information on physiology, ecology, and comparative anatomy. They cover all species traditionally used and afford advanced students below the medical school level with the option of learning human anatomy and physiology via virtual dissections of humans.
Studies show that students who use non-animal methods perform as well or better than students who use traditional dissection. Some vet schools offer alternatives to animal labs and provide ethically sourced (obtained as the result of a natural death or humane euthanasia to end terminal suffering) cadavers for their students. Numerous medical schools contain no live animal labs and nonhuman cadavers rarely undergo dissections. A total of 95% of U.S. medical schools and all Canadian medical schools no longer use animals in their medical student curriculum.
Almost all 28 veterinary schools in the U.S. no longer include required terminal animal surgeries. Schools replaced terminal surgeries with humane alternatives and established programs that advance lifesaving experiences in shelter medicine – benefiting a student’s learning and improving life for the animals.