In an age when technology offers high quality, effective, and humane alternatives to teaching comparative anatomy and physiology, dissection is no longer necessary to meet learning objectives.
As a teacher considering including dissection in the curriculum, first examine your teaching objectives and the need and relevance of such projects. The age and maturity level of your students should also be factored in before determining if dissection is an appropriate activity.
It is crucial to weigh the benefits of dissection against its ethical and environmental costs. Many concerned educators fear that students can become desensitized to the value of life in general when animals are killed for classroom use. In addition, if animals (including reptiles and amphibians) are wild-caught, their capture from the wild can deplete native species at a time when worldwide populations are declining.
Methods of capture, confinement, and transfer can cause intense suffering. A 1993-94 investigation by the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA) uncovered cases of extreme cruelty in the killing and preservation of a large number of cats - many of them stolen pets - being collected in Mexico for shipment to U.S. biological supply houses. Similar problems occur with the capture of frogs and other species collected for the dissection trade.
Increasing numbers of veterinary and medical schools are replacing the use of whole animals with the study of computer simulations, plastic organ models, and animal tissues obtained from grocery stores and slaughterhouses. Other options include reducing the number of specimens needed for dissection through teacher demonstrations, group projects, and substituting a variety of invertebrates.
If you choose to include dissection in your biology curriculum, you can maximize its educational benefits by insisting that students show the highest respect for the animals provided and by offering equally educational alternative activities for students not wishing to participate in the dissection exercise. Your students' sincere concerns should always be treated respectfully.
Students in Massachusetts have the right to choose whether they would like to participate in dissection or choose an alternative activity. The policy, passed in October 2005, states: "All public schools that offer dissection as a learning activity should, upon written request by a student's parent or guardian, permit a student who chooses not to participate in dissection to demonstrate competency through an alternative method." Read the entire policy on the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education's website.
For information on alternative projects, including software programs, models, and free lending libraries, visit our Resources and Materials page. For information on Massachusetts policies regarding dissection, visit our Laws and Regulations page.