Animals in Science / Education

Q&A on Dissection and Alternatives

Like all technology, computer and other dissection alternatives have greatly expanded every year, benefiting students, budgets, the environment, and animals. As science and technology advances, so too must the educational approaches of our schools and universities. Alternatives to specimen dissection are one such advance. They demonstrate anatomy and physiology, as well as the complexity and interconnectedness of life – fulfilling and enhancing science education. Educators who embrace alternatives are realizing the benefits for not only classrooms, but for the world at large. Students come away with deeper understandings of their lessons, respect for animals with whom we share our world, and appreciation for how individual choices can be part of our environmental crisis or part of its solution.


QWhat are the benefits of dissection alternatives?

AEducational reasons to replace traditional specimen dissection are numerous and alternatives are common at all levels of education and professional training. Alternatives allow teachers to:

  • Control pace, focus, and direction of lessons
  • Explore comparative anatomy and physiology
  • Teach human and animal relationships with the environment
  • Encourage independent as well as group learning
  • Evaluate progress through online lessons and quizzes

Alternatives allow students to:

  • Learn interactively
  • Repeat and review lessons
  • Study realistic anatomy, physiology, and behavior of a variety of species including humans
  • Simulate step-by-step dissection
  • Explore functioning systems at the organ, tissue, cellular, and molecular levels

Alternatives benefit school budgets by:

  • Reusing resources since unlike specimens, alternatives are not one-time use only
  • Not having to acquire and replenish costly tools such as scalpels or pans
  • Saving money since in the long run they are less expensive


QHow do alternatives compare to specimen dissection?

AStudies comparing specimen dissection with alternatives found students learn as well or better using alternatives. Alternatives demonstrate scientific principles, teach problem solving, and expose students to scientific technology. They fulfill traditional anatomy lessons and offer learning activities such as:

  • structure, function, and levels of living systems
  • cells, whole organisms, and ecosystems
  • composition and interaction of systems
  • organism internal regulation and relationship with the external environment

Arguments supporting dissection because it is “hands on” are simplistic. Animal bodies are drastically changed during death, embalming, shipping, and storage. Organ color is distorted and specimens allow only superficial observation of gross anatomy. Alternatives more accurately present the complexity of organisms, body systems (e.g., circulatory, respiratory), and interrelationships. They provide histological images, animations, and video clips of body processes, and allow students to re-examine their lessons – unlike dissections that can destroy specimens.

QHow do alternatives promote access to science?

ADissection can discourage some students from pursuing science careers. Studies indicate some students have long-lasting negative feelings about dissection that dissuade them from science careers. Today animal use is unnecessary in medical schools, research, and other areas of science. For example, growing numbers of toxicology labs rely only on in vitro methods.

QWhy is it unethical to use animal specimens?

ASpecimen dissection treats animal life as expendable and the environment as irrelevant. It removes animals from their habitat, breeds them for profit, kills them, infuses them with chemicals, and then discards them into the environment. Specimen dissection is responsible for enormous animal suffering and death, unnecessary for science education and future careers in medicine or science!

The development of positive, thoughtful ethics is an essential goal of all education. The use of animals in schools makes an impression, contributing to adopted attitudes and ethics surrounding such use. Using alternatives can make an enormous contribution to the environmental and humane awareness of students and increase critical thinking regarding the effects of human use of animals on the animals, the environment and across fields of science and human use. Alternatives foster environmental stewardship and compassion for life.

QHow are animals acquired?

AIf not purposely bred, animals destined to be specimens come from the wild, slaughterhouses, shelters, pound seizure, and random source dealers who obtain them in a variety of ways including “free to a good home” ads and taking lost or abandoned “pets.”

No matter the source, animals endure inhumane treatment prior to death. Abuse has been documented at supply companies as well as with dealers. While some believe using animals that are a byproduct of the agricultural or racing industry is more ethical, the abuse and suffering within those industries must be considered. Fetal pigs and cow and sheep organs come from slaughterhouses and factory farms, where rampant abuse has been well documented. So-called “retired” greyhounds from racing have been “donated” to science.

Animals are often shipped live, crammed in small cages with no temperature regulation, food, or water. Depending on where in the chain of supply they are killed, methods include suffocation, drowning, electrocution, gassing, or lethal injection.

QIs specimen dissection harmful to the environment?

ADissection contributes to the decline of wildlife populations (amphibian decline is a major contemporary concern), exposes students to toxic chemicals, and contaminates the environment.

Millions of animals are taken from the wild for dissection – including amphibians, birds, reptiles, fish, and invertebrates – despite declining populations due to habitat loss, pollution, and climate change. Frogs, for example, cannot be successfully bred in captivity and must be taken from their habitats. As a result, dissection contributes to ecological imbalance.

Preservation of animals as specimens involves toxic chemicals such as formaldehyde and its derivatives, designated by the EPA as likely carcinogenic, a hazardous air and water pollutant, and a waste constituent. Disposal of specimens is risky to students, teachers, ecosystems, and public health.

QWhat are some of the alternatives?

ATwo popular types of dissection alternatives are computer programs and models.

Computer Programs: Computer simulations give you the opportunity to learn interactively while controlling the lesson’s focus, direction, and pace. Programs include simulations of the anatomy, physiology, and behavior of cats, crayfish, dogs, fetal pigs, frogs, humans, rats, sharks, and other animals – even humans! Programs simulate a step-by-step dissection, enhance the lesson by including critical thinking questions, data-gathering exercises, and info on comparative anatomy, the physiology of the animal, and its environmental niche. Animated sections may can include films of functioning organs, tissue, or cells.

Models: Models often have removable, labeled, and detailed parts that provide a realistic look at the anatomy of the organism. While preserved specimens are usually faded, monochromatic, and used only once, models are colored to reflect the appearance of a living organism and are reusable. And of course, you can dissect and reinsert organs as needed to make certain you got it!

QDid you use alternatives in your science class?

ASome of us at NEAVS go back to the years when alternatives were not even thought about. Some of us suffered through those classes, opposed to the use of a living frog that was “pithed” (its spinal cord severed) and then dissected alive. Others dropped biology and decided on a career in law instead of medicine as they had wanted. Others were allowed to watch someone else dissect a specimen. And others were allowed alternatives and are now scientists and veterinarians. The varied experiences in our science educations testify to how far we have come over the past few decades. Soon specimen dissection will be something only talked about in history of science classes, but no longer the mainstay of biology classes and professional training!