The history of legislation relating to the use of animals in Massachusetts public schools dates back to 1894, when the state legislature passed the first law in the country regulating animal experiments in elementary and secondary schools and at related exhibitions.
The current law, passed in 1979 following a series of changes over the years, is an outgrowth of that legislation. It is designed to prevent suffering in vertebrate animals used in the study of science at school or at school-related activities conducted at home, in a laboratory, or at a science fair. It also protects animals kept as pets in the classroom.
This law, which is contained in Chapter 272, Section 80G of the Massachusetts General Laws, has generally been quite effective. Today, the MSPCA’s law enforcement department receives few complaints from the public about the mistreatment of animals in schools. By far, the largest number of calls now come from students, teachers, and parents seeking advice or clarification on the provisions of the law.
The law applies to schools receiving public money and prohibits any acts that interfere with the normal health of a vertebrate animal or cause it pain, distress, or injury. It specifically cites experimental drugs and medications, anesthesia, and electric shock, but it also provides animals protection from such things as exposure to diseases, harmful radiation, and toxic chemicals; exercise until exhaustion; negative reinforcement techniques; deprivation of food, water, or veterinary care; major changes in lighting, temperature, diet, or housing that might cause distress; and chick embryology experiments within 72 hours of hatching.
It also addresses omissions in care — such as failure to provide food, water, appropriate temperatures, and necessary veterinary care — that cause suffering or distress.
Vivisection — the act of cutting into the body of a living animal, even under anesthesia — is prohibited. No vivisected animal may be exhibited in any publicly funded elementary or secondary school or at any activity sponsored by such a school. Dissection — the act of cutting into the body of a dead animal — is not prohibited, but the law requires that the practice be confined to the classroom. Dissected animals may not be exhibited outside the science classroom or at a science fair.
The law also requires that classroom pets be housed “in a safe and humane manner” in appropriate enclosures for their species. Safety requirements include well-constructed cages with adequate ventilation and secure coverings and protection from extremes of heat and cold. Humane considerations include provision of fresh water and nutritious food, as well as regular opportunities for exercise. These requirements also apply when school is not in session.
It does not cover invertebrate animals, though the MSPCA strongly recommends that they be provided the same humane care and protection as are given to vertebrates.
Q. Can a student working with a mentor exhibit their work in a Massachusetts science fair if that work involves procedures prohibited under this section of Massachusetts law?
A. No. The law applies to the student, not to the institution — that is, elementary and secondary school students must comply with the provisions of the law, regardless of whether their research is conducted in the classroom, at home, or in an advanced research institution.
Q. Won’t the law’s restrictions on animal use hurt a student’s acceptance chances at some of the most competitive colleges?
A. No. The Massachusetts law is designed to foster respect for life while encouraging sound scientific inquiry. Massachusetts State Science Fair judges place great value on those projects that show evidence of original thought and document careful use of the scientific method. Students need not use sophisticated equipment, complex terminology, or harmful substances, or interfere with the normal health and well-being of vertebrate animals to demonstrate their understanding of good science.
Q. How do I know if a project is going to be acceptable?
A. Students and teachers should work together to clarify the questions being asked and design an appropriate experiment to answer them. Animals don’t always make the best research subjects.
Q. What about students who are home-schooled and students in private school?
A. While the Massachusetts law applies only to schools that receive public money, the MSPCA urges students and teachers in privately funded schools to comply with the law as written for public schools. Private school students intending to enter local, regional, or state science fair competition must comply fully with the Massachusetts law.
The MSPCA also recommends that students studying animals at home seek the advice of local animal shelter staffers, a veterinarian, or a wildlife expert who is knowledgeable about the particular species to be studied.
Q. Is it better for most students to conduct experiments with animals at home or at school?
A. Parents and teachers must carefully weigh the value of requiring younger students to conduct their experiments at school, where they can be more closely supervised by the teacher in charge, against the stress caused to the animals by exposure to potentially irregular temperature changes and feeding schedules in the evening and weekend school environment. The best solution is the one that will ensure the most consistent care for the animal(s) involved. Upper division projects must be conducted at school in accordance with national science fair rules.
Q. Are experiments aimed at understanding an animal’s tolerance for temperature or acidity changes allowed under the Massachusetts law?
A. They are allowed if the range of temperature changes or acidity levels falls within the animal’s normal range on land or in the water — that is, if the animal is known to comfortably tolerate this range. Teachers and students wishing to conduct these types of studies must first learn what the parameters are for the species involved and then make every effort to ensure that the animal does not suffer in the process of exposure to extremes in that range.
Q. Are chick hatching experiments legal in Massachusetts?
A. The Massachusetts law does not prohibit chick hatching. However, because many incubators fail to provide the exacting heat, humidity, and rotation needs of the developing eggs — and because it is usually extremely difficult to find appropriate placements for all the chicks after hatching — the MSPCA discourages these experiments.
Q. What about chick embryology studies?
A. Based on the opinion of some experts, the developing embryo does not have the capacity to suffer until three days before hatching if its protective covering is interfered with in some way. After this time, the embryo’s nervous system has developed sufficiently for the chick to suffer discomfort from the loss of warmth and humidity resulting from chick embryology studies. Therefore, according to principles and guidelines issued by the Institute of Laboratory Animal Resources (ILAR), experiments on avian embryos should be terminated 72 hours before hatching.
The MSPCA supports the ILAR guidelines and interprets the Massachusetts law to mean that chick embryology studies are considered legal only up until the 18th day of development for chicken eggs, which normally hatch in 21 days.
However, many educators believe that these kinds of studies can teach the wrong message about the disposability of life and diminish their students’ respect for living things when the life of a growing embryo is interfered with in ways that will inevitably cause death. The MSPCA, therefore, discourages teachers from using this invasive approach to the study of life.
Q. Is freezing an appropriate way to euthanize an amphibian or a reptile?
A. No. The American Veterinary Medical Association Panel on Euthanasia recommends against freezing because the formation of ice crystals on the skin and in tissues of an animal may cause pain or distress. Therefore, freezing is considered an illegal form of euthanasia in Massachusetts. It is always best to take the animal to a veterinarian or an animal shelter, where qualified staff members can provide the animal with a humane death.
Q. What about flushing fish and snails down the drain at the end of the year?
A. Disposing of fish by flushing them down the drain causes pain and distress to a vertebrate animal, so this procedure is considered against the law in this state. The MSPCA recommends that the same consideration be given to snails. Better options include allowing these animals to live out their lives under your continued care or calling a veterinarian or an animal shelter for assistance with humane disposition.
Q. Is it OK to feed small mammals or birds to captive snakes?
A. Most snakes will adapt successfully to a diet of dead animals or packaged snake food if presented properly, so it is in violation of the law to subject live animals to the trauma inherent in live feeding in captive situations.
Q. Where can I get good information about the care of different kinds of classroom animals?
A. More information is available here. Another excellent resource is Animal Care: from Protozoa to Small Mammals, by F. Barbara Orlans, Ph.D. Other resources include humane societies, veterinarians, and biological supply houses.
Q. How does an Animal Care and Use Committee work?
A. An Animal Care and Use Committee (ACUC) can assist teachers, students, and parents in your school or town to comply with all applicable laws and guidelines related to management of classroom pets, plans for classroom activities involving animals, and proposed science fair projects.
Q. Where can I get more information if I still have questions?
A. Massachusetts teachers, parents, and students are encouraged to call the MSPCA (617-522-7400) with questions about the state law as it applies to animals in elementary and secondary schools. When calling, please try to plan ahead. Some questions require additional research, so an immediate response to every question is not always possible.
The Law: Use of Live Vertebrates for Experiments or Exhibitions
The text of the Massachusetts state law regulating the use of live vertebrates in elementary and secondary schools reads as follows:
No school principal, administrator or teacher shall allow any live vertebrate to be used in any elementary or high school under state control or supported wholly or partly by public money of the state as part of a scientific experiment or for any other purpose in which said vertebrates are experimentally medicated or drugged in a manner to cause painful reactions or to induce painful or lethal pathological conditions, or in which said vertebrates are injured through any other type of treatment, experiment or procedure including but not limited to anesthetization or electrical shock, or where the normal health of said animal is interfered with or where pain or distress is caused.
No person shall, in the presence of a pupil in any elementary or high school under state control or supported wholly or partly by public money of the state, practice vivisection, or exhibit a vivisected animal. Dissection of dead animals or any portions thereof in such schools shall be confined to the class room and to the presence of pupils engaged in the study to be promoted thereby, and shall in no case be for the purpose of exhibition.
Live animals used as class pets or for the purposes not prohibited in paragraphs one and two hereof in such schools shall be housed or cared for in a safe and humane manner. Said animals shall not remain in school over periods when such schools are not in session, unless adequate care is provided at all times.
The provisions of the preceding three paragraphs shall also apply to any activity associated with or sponsored by the school. Whoever violates the provisions of this section shall be punished by a fine of not more than one hundred dollars (Chapter 272, Section 80G).