Opportunities to explore the mysteries of life can be highly compelling and enriching experiences for elementary and secondary school students, increasing children’s interest in and understanding of all forms of life.
If the principles of scientific inquiry are humanely taught — without causing pain, injury, stress, or suffering to any species — they can also foster respect for and connection with the animals who share this planet with us.
Animal Care and Use Committees
The MSPCA recommends that each school or school district establish an Animal Care and Use Committee (ACUC) to assist teachers, students, and parents in complying with these guidelines.
The ACUC can be charged with reviewing the management of classroom pets, plans for classroom activities involving animals, and proposed science fair projects. The ACUC can ensure that, if an animal is used in a classroom or science fair, the animal is well cared for and not harmed in any way.
The National Academy of Sciences suggests that members of ACUCs be appointed by the school principal and include a science teacher, a teacher of a non-science subject, and a scientist or veterinarian. Other contributors could include a student, a school administrator and/or a parent. At least one panel member should not be affiliated with the school or science fair, and none should be family members of the student whose science fair or independent project is being reviewed.
Care and Housing of Classroom Pets
Keeping animals in the classroom requires a commitment of time, effort, and money on the teacher’s part.
Regular maintenance includes keeping cages and tanks clean and providing fresh food and drinking water. Housing must allow each animal enough room to move around and to escape the attention of students and of other animals. It must be secure enough to prevent the animals’ escape.
Give careful thought to the location of the animals in the classroom. Enclosures must be well ventilated and provide protection against extremes of heat and light. Glass enclosures, which can overheat easily, should be located away from direct sunlight. Wire cages, which are subject to drafts, should be located away from windows and heating and air conditioning units. Wire cages should also be checked for any protruding wires that could injure the animal or a child.
Appropriate food, bedding, and gnawing material (for rodents) must be provided. Many rodents enjoy nest boxes (cardboard boxes with an entrance cut out) and tunnels (paper towel tubes work well). Exercise equipment and toys designed to enrich the cage environment should also be made available.
Periodic handling is good for some species, but students should be taught how to pick up, hold, and touch their classroom pet to minimize the risk of escape or injury. Only those students mature enough to handle the animal appropriately should be allowed this privilege, and they should always be carefully supervised. Most classroom pets that bite do so because human hands have become associated with unpleasant experiences. No stressful or harmful procedures should ever be allowed on a classroom pet.
As a teacher, you are the classroom pet’s primary caregiver, and so are best qualified to meet its needs over weekends, holidays, and vacations. Changes in its care and environment can severely stress some animals, and their safety can be jeopardized if, when sent home with students, they receive untrained handling or are exposed to other pets or young children in the student’s household.
If you decide to entrust the temporary care of a classroom pet to a student and his or her family, provide detailed written instructions regarding safe transportation, feeding, and handling.
During school breaks, when heat and air conditioning may be reduced, consider the temperature requirements of any animals you cannot take home with you. Ask to be notified in the event of any heat loss emergencies, and advise the fire department of the location of live animals in the building in advance of any fire emergencies.
Identify an alternate caregiver — another teacher or member of the staff, a mature student, or your local animal control officer — who is willing to provide temporary care if you are unavailable or if inclement weather forces a school closing. Identify this caregiver on your lesson plans for substitute teachers.
If more than one animal is kept in the same cage, they should be behaviorally compatible and of the same sex. Female mammals often do better in group housing situations than males do because they may be less territorial and less likely to fight, causing injuries. It is always best to seek advice on this issue before creating a situation you will later regret.
Regular, preventative veterinary care should be provided for all animals kept in the classroom. This is not only important for the animals; it also sends a good message to your students about the importance of routine medical care. Before you acquire a classroom pet, be sure there is a veterinarian in your area who is knowledgeable about the care of that particular species. If euthanasia becomes necessary, it should be performed only by a veterinarian or by a trained technician in a local animal shelter.
You must 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 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. An investigation by the World Society for the Protection of Animals 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 valid alternative activities for students not wishing to participate in the dissection exercise. Your students’ sincere concerns should always be treated respectfully.
Students in Massachusetts now have a documented right to choose whether they would like to participate in dissection, as do students in 21 other states. The Massachusetts 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.”
Live Animal Studies
The MSPCA urges teachers to limit their elementary and secondary school study of live animals to the observation of normal living patterns, behavior, development, and relation to the environment.
Observation offers myriad opportunities for engaging curious young minds in scientific inquiry. The best approach allows students to observe animals in their natural habitat, but zoos, gardens, and aquaria 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 models, books, films, online 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.
Of particular concern to animal protection professionals is the popular classroom egg-hatching project. Even in the most responsible classrooms, incubator malfunctions can result in dead or deformed chicks, and others grow sick because their exacting needs for heat, humidity, and egg rotation are not met during and after hatching. Moreover, it is nearly impossible to find a suitable home for the resulting chicks. Most working farms will not receive school-project birds, and those that do will rarely accept roosters. Simply killing the chicks after birth promotes the idea that these animals are disposable commodities. Recommended alternatives include a trip to a chick hatchery or the purchase of a butterfly hatching kit (be sure the species are native to your area).
In pre-college education, no vertebrate animals should be used in biological or behavioral experiments that cause pain, injury, stress, 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 late F. Barbara Orlans, Ph.D., senior research fellow at the Kennedy Institute of Ethics at Georgetown University, offered some sound advice for thinking about animal use at different levels of education. She suggests that policies on the use of animals should relate the educational level of the student to the justification for inflicting pain or death on a sentient animal. Beginners should start with projects that do not involve any ethical costs. At the primary and secondary school level, projects should not involve any harm to vertebrate animals. Guidelines issued by the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) also discourage harmful experimentation on live animals at the pre-college level.
Procedures with the potential for causing pain or suffering to a vertebrate animal should always be conducted by highly trained scientists in carefully regulated settings where alternatives have been thoroughly exhausted, pain-killers are readily available, and the potential for new knowledge is great. No animals should ever be made to suffer for the purpose of demonstrating well-known facts.
Specific procedures to be avoided at the elementary and secondary level include any kind of surgery — with or without anesthesia; experiments that involve significant manipulations of the animal’s environment, including lighting, temperature, diet, and housing; 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. Some sources of ideas are listed on our website here.
Chick Hatching in the Classroom
At the MSPCA at Nevins Farm, we receive dozens of calls every year from parents and teachers looking to surrender unwanted chicks from classroom hatching projects. While hands-on projects offer a special learning opportunity to students, this particular project has many drawbacks. Considerations are rarely made regarding the responsibility involved in caring for a chicken throughout its lifetime. Children are unintentionally taught that pets are disposable when they are surrendered due to reasons that are simply part of their nature. The MSPCA is happy to pair with local schools and educators to develop enriching and humane lessons in lieu of chick hatching.
There are some great videos of chick hatching that are perfectly good substitutes for the live project. We also encourage lessons and projects that are focused around observing animals in their own, natural environment such as bird watching or studying ecosystems in tide pools. Removing an animal from its natural environment, and observing it in an artificial environment, de-emphasizes how important it is for that animal to be able to provide for itself. We want children to learn to value and respect wildlife, including insects, from a distance.
Learning proper experimental design and developing a respect for all of life can both contribute to a deeper understanding of our world.
Projects that promote greater understanding of animal species and/or their relationships with other species can be of tremendous interest and value.
Sadly, the history of science fairs in America is replete with incidents of extreme cruelty to animals by young, untrained students. To prevent these from recurring, the Westinghouse Science Talent Search now prohibits all live vertebrate experiments except those involving behavioral observation, blood or tissue research, and data analysis.
Despite some recent tightening of its rules covering research on nonhuman vertebrate animals, the International Science and Engineering Fair still allows projects that involve painful procedures on vertebrates.
The MSPCA believes that capable students wishing to study animals for a science fair project can achieve their educational goals and produce award-winning work without performing invasive experiments.
Students planning to conduct a study involving live animals should submit their plans in writing to an appropriate review committee before beginning the project or obtaining the animals. The written plan should include a detailed description of the methods and procedures to be used, including all aspects of animal procurement, care, housing, and use; experimental design; data analysis; and a plan for the care of the animal following the end of the study.
All projects must be directly supervised by a qualified teacher, who should assist the student in selecting a project consistent with his or her level of comprehension, ability, and maturity.
If any of the work is to be done outside of school, a parent or guardian should be asked to co-sign the project proposal, signifying an understanding of acceptable and unacceptable procedures, of the proper care and handling of any animals involved, and of their responsibility to supervise the work being done.
Pre-college students working with a mentor in a hospital or research laboratory setting should follow the same guidelines that apply to teachers and other students at the elementary and secondary levels. No procedures should interfere with the animal’s health and well-being. No painful procedures should be performed, and no toxic chemicals should be administered. No vertebrate animals should be sacrificed for student research. Students intending to conduct independent research at the mentor’s institution must seek the approval of that institution’s Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC).
To avoid the potential for harm in transporting and housing animals in temporary quarters during science fair exhibitions, no living vertebrates should be used in displays at science fairs. Suitable substitutes for documenting behavior may include photographs, drawings, videotapes, audiotapes, charts, and graphs.
For additional information, please visit our webpage containing laws and regulations regarding animals in education.