Animals in Science / Education

ESEC Frequently Asked Questions

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“Why do some students choose not to participate in specimen dissection?”

An animal is killed. Some feel that this loss of life is unnecessary and can and should be avoided.

Animal welfare. The treatment of live animals destined for dissection is inhumane. Animals are often stockpiled on top of one another and shipped in crowded containers with no temperature regulation, food, or water. Undercover video footage has exposed that some animals were still alive as they were pumped full of formaldehyde or other preservatives.

Conservation. Given the ongoing destruction and fragility of natural habitats, many feel that the yearly harvesting of millions of animals for dissection is wasteful, creates ecological imbalance, and further compromises already besieged natural resources.

Environmental Concerns. Toxic chemicals such as formaldehyde or derivatives that contain formaldehyde in lesser concentrations preserve millions of animals each year. Formaldehyde is a known carcinogen in humans and the Environmental Protection Agency has designated it as a hazardous air and water pollutant and waste material. The disposal of specimens by thousands of classrooms every year presents a risk not only to the individual teacher and students involved, but also to the environment and subsequently public health. 

Respect for life. Instead of regarding animal life as valuable, students can learn that life is usable, disposable, and the suffering of someone else is secondary to their own needs and interests. Dissection choice allows students who have ethical concerns to use alternatives to animal specimens.

“Aren’t students who choose not to dissect specimens allowed alternatives?”

Many teachers, parents, and school administrators have heard of situations where a student was made uncomfortable or penalized for not wanting to dissect. ESEC has received hundreds of calls from students who have encountered resistance or been denied or penalized for requesting an alternative. Fortunately, many science teachers today are sensitive to their students’ requests and are knowledgeable about dissection choice. However, this is not universally the case.

The growing number of court cases where students—with parental support—are filing litigation against school systems and/or individual teachers indicates that many students are not being granted dissection choice. The cases are typically resolved in favor of the student.

“Do alternatives to dissection provide the same knowledge as specimen dissection?”

Dissection alternatives provide the necessary basic anatomy information that an unlabeled specimen cannot. They can also integrate advanced scientific concepts and various fields of study, which a specimen cannot. Research suggests that students who learn from alternatives perform as well or better on tested subject matter compared to students who used animal specimens.

Computer software programs offer anatomy, physiology, histology, and even ecology lessons through interactive graphics and video in a variety of modalities. Such advanced educational methods ensure that students are highly engaged in the learning process. Charts, books, models, and DVDs have also been enhanced by advancements in photographic and computer technology. Some include extremely accurate representations of specimens and/or clear detailed graphics of actual dissections.

Today’s technology makes basic lessons of anatomy and physiology clear and engaging. Because animal specimens can only be used once, alternative lessons actually give teachers more options than do traditional dissection specimens. Students can also master or enhance essential computer skills when using computer dissection programs. This added benefit of sharpening computer skills is a definite advantage to budding scientists who will rely heavily on computer technology throughout their careers.

“Where do dissection specimens come from?”

Millions of animals, such as amphibians, reptiles, fish, birds, and most invertebrates, are taken from the wild, while others come from licensed animal breeders, biological supply companies, random source dealers, pet stores, fur farms, and slaughterhouses. Random source dealers obtain live and/or dead animals, like cats and dogs, through a variety of means such as animal shelters and pounds (often referred to as “pound seizure”), from “free animal” ads, or as “stray” animals. These dealers then sell the animals to biological supply companies, schools, colleges, and universities. Supply companies may also purchase animals from any of these sources or from other dealers, and many have direct contracts with animal shelters and pounds both inside and outside the U.S.

In the wild, millions of frogs alone are harvested each year, posing a grave threat to endangered wild populations already decimated by habitat loss, chemical pollution, and global climate change. Breeding frogs in captivity for dissection is not lucrative, so suppliers use wild harvesting as it reaps greater profit, resulting in imbalance and possible extinction in the environment.

Fetal pigs and organs from cows and sheep, often used in dissection labs, come from slaughterhouses and factory farms. Advocacy groups and undercover investigations have well documented the abuse associated with factory farming. Animals are often kept in cramped, unsanitary conditions while enduring painful “routine” procedures (such as debeaking, tail docking, and castration). Investigative reports have revealed animals still living while being dismembered in the mechanical slaughterhouse assembly line.

Undercover investigations have also documented animal abuse at the hands of random source dealers and biological supply companies. For example, companies have been caught buying both live and dead cats captured off the streets in Mexico. Animal protection organizations, in response to complaints of disappearing companion animals in Mexico, found that suppliers trapped thousands of cats in residential neighborhoods, cruelly killed them, and shipped the bodies to the U.S. where suppliers sold them to schools for educational purposes.

“Is dissection choice disrespectful to the teacher?”

When a student disagrees with a teacher, the case is sometimes made that the student is being difficult or disrespectful. Many educators realize, however, that not all children learn the same way. Some children cannot find it within themselves to dissect an animal. These students are not being rebellious but simply wish to find a way to reconcile their lessons with their beliefs, values, and respect for other animals.

Many students taking a high school biology class will change career choices when confronted by the prospect of mandatory dissections. Anecdotal evidence demonstrates that girls are especially likely to abandon science if faced with forced dissection. Considering the low percentage of women in the sciences and the fact that the newly emerging field of bioethics is now an important and integral part of the field of biology, science education must progress and provide alternatives to ethically conscious individuals who are the future of science.

“Can students use alternatives and still pursue a successful career in science?”

Today in the U.S., over 96 percent of medical schools no longer use live animals in their medical student training and almost all veterinary schools allow alternatives for at least some or all of their courses involving invasive or terminal procedures on animals. In Canada, there are no medical schools that use animals in student training or any veterinary schools that conduct terminal procedures on animals. Medical simulation centers are heralded as the future of medical education, and many veterinary schools are also integrating advanced computer technology into their classrooms, including three-dimensional dissection computer programs.

Comparative studies have shown time and again that alternatives to dissection—from computer programs to models which are more realistic than preserved “specimens”—are as educationally effective, and in most cases more so, than animal dissection. In April 2008, the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) revised its dissection position to acknowledge the educational value of non-animal learning methods as replacements for animal dissections, and to establish the principle of dissection choice for all classrooms. The NSTA’s acknowledgement of the educational efficacy of these alternatives is further evidence of their viability as learning tools and the future of science education.