Animals in Science / Education

Animals in Education: Overview

“Under the stress of forced dissection—or dog lab, or any other harmful use of an animal—education is thwarted. When forced to use animals in ways the student objects to, the student is traumatized and invariably learns less.” 1

Each year, an estimated 20 million animals (10 million vertebrates and 10 million invertebrates) equaling around 170 or more different species are used in the U.S. in all areas of education and grade levels.2 Animals are kept as “pets” in classrooms and used in biology and psychology classes, graduate training courses, and science fair projects.

The studying of animals in science education has taken place since the 1960s and the practice of dissection—the act of cutting into and examining a dead animal—continues to serve as a prominent educational tool for teaching anatomy and other “life” sciences (e.g. physiology, behavior, nutrition, and genetics). Students dissect preserved animals throughout all levels of biology education, from middle school to graduate school. College students who participate in biology courses typically encounter dissection labs. Medical schools perform dissection; however, the students often perform the dissections on human cadavers. Veterinary schools’ curricula involve animal dissection and the use of live animals through a number of different ways.

Animals commonly used in education include frogs, fetal pigs, cats, dogs, dogfish sharks, perch, pigeons, rats, mice, rabbits, minks, foxes, bats, turtles, grasshoppers, earthworms, crayfish, clams, cockroaches, sea urchins, squid, and starfish—also known as sea stars. The most frequently dissected vertebrate animals are frogs, fetal pigs, and cats. Many animals—like frogs, salamanders, turtles, and dogfish sharks—are taken from the wild, while others come from licensed animal breeders and dealers, pet stores, fur farms, and slaughterhouses. In addition to buying animals purposely bred for use in research and teaching from licensed animal breeders (known as Class A Dealers), schools and universities also purchase animals from biological supply companies (Class B dealers) and/or random source dealers (Class B random source dealers). 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, and 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. As of October 1, 2014, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced that it will no longer fund research that involves dogs procured from random source Class B dealers. NIH adopted a similar policy regarding cats in 2012.

Problems with the use of animals in education

The treatment of animals destined for use in dissection and other educational purposes involves an inordinate amount of suffering, stress, and inhumane treatment. Millions of animals, such as amphibians, reptiles, fish, birds, and most invertebrates, are “harvested” from natural habitats each year for dissection purposes. Dealers often stockpile animals on top of one another and ship them in crowded containers with no temperature regulation, food, or water. Undercover video footage has exposed that some are still alive as they are pumped full of formaldehyde or other preservatives.

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 Class B dealers and biological supply companies. These companies buy, for example, 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. The New England Anti-Vivisection Society (NEAVS) opposes the surrender of animals by animal shelters and animal control agencies to labs, science and research facilities, or pharmaceutical and educational institutions. In 1983, with the help of thousands of animal activists across the state, we spearheaded a campaign to repeal the 1957 pound seizure law in Massachusetts. The successful campaign resulted in the first and one of the strongest anti-pound seizure laws in the U.S. and protects thousands of lost and abandoned dogs and cats each year from being used in research.

Conservation and environmental concerns

The harvesting of millions of frogs from the wild each year for dissection purposes poses a grave threat to endangered wild populations already decimated by habitat loss, chemical pollution, and global climate change. Given the ongoing destruction and fragility of natural habitats, the yearly removal of animals for dissection is wasteful, creates ecological imbalance, and further compromises already besieged natural resources. Breeding frogs in captivity for dissection is not lucrative, so suppliers use wild harvesting as it reaps greater profit yet poses imbalance and possible extinction in the environment.

Preservation of animals for research presents other significant concerns for the environment. Toxic chemicals such as formaldehyde or derivatives that contain formaldehyde in lesser concentrations preserve millions of animals each year. Formaldehyde is a “reasonably anticipated” carcinogen in humans. “Teachers and students who handle preserved specimens represent potential high exposure groups. The EPA has designated formaldehyde as a hazardous air pollutant, water pollutant, and waste constituent.”3  Municipalities and industry have detected formaldehyde in their water supplies, rainwater, lake water, and some waterways. Other substitutes for formaldehyde have not been on the market long enough to truly determine safety and still often contain formaldehyde as a key ingredient. Also, these substitutes do not necessarily preserve specimens in an acceptable form that some teachers claim is useful for dissection. 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. Studies have documented that not all schools follow strict environmental guidelines for disposing the hazardous waste of dissected animals’ remains.

Respect for life and the lesson of compassion

Instead of regarding animal life as valuable, through harmful animal classroom use students can learn that life is disposable and the suffering of someone else is secondary to their own needs and interests. In schools and colleges where student choice is not an option, teachers and professors may make the case that the student is being difficult or disrespectful in straying from the curriculum. Situations are numerous where administration penalized or made a student uncomfortable for not wanting to participate in dissection classes. This of course has serious consequences for the student’s grades and science career. Hundreds of students who encountered resistance or were denied or penalized for requesting an alternative to dissection have contacted the Ethical Science Education Campaign (ESEC), the educational affiliate of NEAVS. 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, and as importantly for the evolution of science education ethics, these same students are no longer taking no for an answer. Rather, they are standing with conviction by their ethical and compassionate values and their right to a science education. NEAVS’ campaign for dissection choice in Massachusetts led to the enactment of a student choice policy by the MA Department of Education, protecting students who choose not to participate in animal dissection and allowing these students to learn through humane alternatives.

Dr. Theodora Capaldo has published several papers including one on research regarding the psychological effect on students of the harmful use of animals at all educational levels.4 If forced to participate, these students suffer severe psychological trauma as the result of seeing themselves or others engaged in behavior that they find ethically objectionable yet sanctioned by authorities. Their cognitive abilities may become impaired, resulting in less learning. They may withdraw and lose interest in science. Students—even those who believe they are willing participants—become desensitized and may develop a utilitarian view of animals, thereby diminishing their capacity for compassion and ethical decision-making. Qualified, compassionate people—especially women—often decide to end their career in science rather than compromise their values. This loss contributes to the gender gap in science and to individuals feeling disappointed and derailed in their career aspirations.

Despite the availability of non-animal alternatives, some teachers still feel that dissection is a productive tool for teaching anatomy. Others feel that students must undergo a “rite of passage” to become prepared for medical or veterinary careers. They do not, however, factor in that the vast majority of their students will not enter these fields, and that even those who do will now stand a good chance of attending a college, university, or professional school that will not require the harmful use of animals in their science curriculum.


Comparative studies have shown time and again that alternatives to dissection—from computer programs to models that 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.

Many science teachers and school systems today are sensitive to their students’ requests and are knowledgeable about dissection choice and the use of non-animal alternatives. Dissection choice allows students who have ethical concerns to use alternatives to animal specimens and ensures a future generation of compassionate scientists by guaranteeing that students at all levels of science education have the right to learn without harming or killing animals. From dissection in high school and college to animal labs in veterinary and medical school, science education now deters those who refuse to harm animals from entering the field of science. Fortunately times are changing and a choice for science education without animal cruelty in, for example, veterinary and medical training, is becoming the norm rather than the exception to the rule. Guaranteeing the choice of a cruelty-free science education is the only way to allow, support, and encourage compassionate students to enter the field of science and ultimately change the way science does science.

To date, 18 states plus the District of Columbia now have dissection choice laws and/or policies in place to protect students—campaigns to which NEAVS/ESEC lent support. In addition to our ongoing work to pass dissection choice laws across the nation and to change medical and veterinary school training, NEAVS successfully ended the use of animals in “terminal labs” at the first veterinary college in the U.S. In 2000, Tufts University Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine became the first veterinary school in the country to no longer require terminal labs, in which students trained by practicing on animals before killing them. This victory—the result of years of collaboration between NEAVS and Tufts—led the way for other veterinary schools to follow suit. Today in the U.S., 50 percent of veterinary schools no longer require terminal labs and 96 percent of U.S. medical schools no longer use live animals in their medical student training.

NEAVS/ESEC works to guarantee students at all levels of science education the right to learn science without having to harm or kill animals. Through ESEC, we offer dissection alternative programs as a humane way for students to learn about science, anatomy, and physiology. ESEC supports students and programs at the high school, college, and professional school levels.

[1] Capaldo, T. (2004). The Psychological Effect on Students of Using Animals in Ways that They See as Ethically, Morally and Religiously Wrong. ATLA, 32, 525-531.

[2] Hart, L. A., Wood, M. W., & Hart, B.L. (2008). Why Dissection? Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

[3] National Toxicology Program. (1998). Report on Carcinogens, Eighth Edition. Research Triangle Park, NC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service, National Toxicology Program.

[4] Capaldo, T. (2004). The Psychological Effect on Students of Using Animals in Ways that They See as Ethically, Morally and Religiously Wrong. ATLA, 32, 525-531.