The best approach to incorporating live animals allows students to observe animals in their natural habitat, but some zoos, gardens, and aquaria may offer good opportunities for observation in a captive environment. Students can also be encouraged to observe normal living functions of pets, fish, or other domestic animals, including classroom pets; to observe normal growth and development in humans and other animals; and to observe human behavior and physiology, such as monitoring pulse rates and blood pressure.
If you are considering using animals in a particular area of study, first consider whether your objectives can be met without actually bringing them into the classroom. Alternatives include books, DVDs, models, CD-ROM programs, guest speakers, and field trips. Some zoos and museums also offer animal visitation programs. These can be good ways to introduce children to animals without the time and expense involved in acquiring them yourself.
For studying many life processes, invertebrates with no nervous systems or those with primitive ones (including protozoa, worms, and insects) are preferable to more complex organisms. Studies of vertebrates and invertebrates with advanced nervous systems such as snails may be a better choice when lower invertebrates are not suitable.
Teachers should make advance arrangements for placing all vertebrates (including fish, reptiles, amphibians, and small mammals) in permanent, suitable homes at the end of the study. If permanent arrangements for an animal's care in the teacher's home or elsewhere cannot be made, the animal should not be acquired for classroom use in the first place. Domestic animals should never be released into the wild under any circumstances.
No vertebrate animals should be used in biological or behavioral experiments that cause pain, injury, stress, or suffering, or interfere in any way with the animal's normal development, health, behavior, or environment. As a general rule, procedures that cause pain, injury, stress, or suffering in humans also cause pain, injury, stress, or suffering to other vertebrates. The following procedures should never be conducted at the elementary and secondary level: any kind of surgery (with or without anesthesia); experiments that involve significant manipulations of the animal's environment; experiments that involve exposure to diseases, harmful radiation, toxic chemicals, carcinogens, pollutants, alcohol, harmful drugs, toxic fumes, electric shock, or excessive noise; behavioral or physiological studies that involve negative reinforcement techniques or deprivation (such as food or water); exercise until exhaustion; chick embryology experiments; and collection and killing of insects for display or identification purposes. Behavioral studies should be based only on positive reinforcement (rewards), not negative reinforcement (punishment).
Ideas for humane science experiments that encourage students to develop a life-long respect for life while learning good science abound. For information on alternative lessons, including books and manipulatives, visit our Resources and Materials page.