“We are on our way to becoming a nation of wimps. It’s just a frog, for crying out loud.” (Virginia State Senator Richard Saslaw, 2004)
As the calendar turns, biology teachers across America are preparing lesson plans that usually include a section on animal dissection. It has been said that smell is the sense most correlated with memory. For me, formaldehyde brings me back to Mr. Fiero’s 10th grade biology class in 1980. It was there, in his laboratory classroom, that my partner and I dissected a fetal pig. What I remember most from the experience is how strongly I didn’t want to do it, but, alas, the option to pursue alternate study was not granted to NYS students until 1994.
Mr. Fiero kept a boa constrictor in a glass cage and would occasionally feed him live rodents as part of our education (although, he did graciously allow us to look away with impunity). This lifecycle moment did not appear to upset too many of my classmates, but when Shadow, the hobbled domestic rabbit, disappeared one weekend as the giant snake’s latest meal (the bulge was immense), a palpable sadness pervaded the classroom. Looking back, this illustrates our uneven morality on animals. The prey mice were entertainment for many of my friends. The pet rabbit, accorded favored status, was mourned upon his untimely demise. As for the dissection, I remember having some nebulous notion of an unfortunate porcine miscarriage. I didn’t consciously associate our subject with a deliberate death.
Dissection has been a part of biology class since the 1920′s, but in 1987, a brave 15-year-old Californian named Jennifer Graham refused to dissect an animal and sued her school district. She argued for a comparable academic option. A year later, California would grant that right to all high school students (nine other states have followed). 2009 is far different from 1929. Today, we have sophisticated models and computer programs (capable of detailed virtual dissections). My son opted-out in 9th grade and still gained a broad understanding of the anatomy by using the school-provided program.
Millions of animals are harvested, sold, and dissected annually in America. Therein lies the irony. Biology, the science of life, is studied through destruction of said life. How paradoxical is teaching about a frog’s ability to live through an act (dissection) that kills him? Teachers can teach life by visiting animals in their natural habitats (preserves, sanctuaries), and death can be covered without killing (medical school cadavers).
Classroom dissection is big business, and Carolina Biological is the industry leader. Their website (complete with shopping cart) offers a wide variety of products (including skinned cats). To be fair, they also sell virtual kits, but their primary business is selling dead animals. Remember, all animals used in dissections must be replaced each term, while models and computer programs last years. Carolina is also deliberately inexact about their sources: “…some from cultures, some from natural or managed habitats where seasonal collections are made, and many from the food industry.” The fetal pigs are extracted from their mothers at the slaughterhouse (as well as single organs like the cow’s eye my daughter examined in sixth grade). Some cats come from shelters when deemed unadoptable.
The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine writes:
An investigation of Carolina Biological Supply Company (CBSC), the largest animal supply business in the United States, found cats arriving in crowded cages, being poked with metal hooks, and finally being sent into gas chambers (some giving birth or making sounds after the gassing, indicating they were not yet dead). In 1991, the U.S. Department of Agriculture charged the CBSC with 10 violations of the Animal Welfare Act, including one charge of embalming cats who were still alive. When they are “prepared” for dissection, frogs are usually dropped in a water-and-alcohol solution, which can take up to 20 minutes to cause death.
Today, there is less stigma attached to opting-out, but the complete elimination of middle and high school dissection faces two giant obstacles: commerce and convention. Companies like Carolina have a vested interest in the continued practice, and science teachers are teaching as they were taught. Fortunately, not all scientists adhere to this convention. Biologist Jonathan Balcombe: “Studies show that nonanimal methods teach concepts in biology and anatomy just as well or better than animal dissection.” And pathologist Nancy Harrison: “As a doctor who performs autopsies, I can assure students that computer images of well-preserved tissues look more like the “real thing” than the squishy gray organs of a formalin-fixed specimen.”