Dissection and Vivisection: Animals as Classroom Tools

Arielle Schecter's picture

Each year, American students are responsible for the deaths of millions of animals in the interests of science education. Frogs, fetal pigs, cats, and cows’ eyeballs bear the brunt of the education industry’s demand for vivisection education, which may be defined as the act of dissecting or injuring animals for purposes of scientific investigation or experimentation. [1] While alternatives to classroom dissection do exist in the form of instructional videotapes and other “hands-off” materials, cutting up a dead animal remains a rite of passage for students around the nation.

An estimated six million animals are killed for classroom dissection each year; these animals are often collected from the wild, contributing to anthropogenic ecological consequences not easily visible from the microscope of a seventh grader. [2] Another method of obtaining animals for dissection is through special breeding facilities that also cater to the pharmaceutical, cosmetology, and even automobile industries. A quick Google search for biological supply companies yields lists of available “organisms” for sale, both “preserved” and “live.” An individual can set up an account with, for one, the Carolina Biological Supply Company - which touts itself as “world-class support for science & math [instruction]” - and become eligible for a 25% discount off her first order of trademarked “Carolina’s Perfect Solution Rats” or “Carolina’s Perfect Solution Pigs.” [3]

On its website, Carolina cites the National Science Education Standards, a set of education benchmarks copyrighted by the National Academy of Sciences, claiming that its equipment - animals - directly aids a child’s exploration and knowledge of the natural sciences by allowing the child to determine how life systems work and by providing information about an “organism’s characteristics.” [4] The company’s unabashed presentation of formaldehyde-stuffed frogs as valid consumer and educational products is not unique. Many such companies exist to fill the demands of schools across the nation.

The prevalence of dissection in science classrooms can be tracked as early as the third grade, when typical students are instructed to dissect earthworms without being offered any alternative exercises. These children are taught that dissection is a necessary step in understanding the life structure of animals, while it could be argued that prior scientific observation, such as the fact that earthworms have been dissected before, can give students the same insights, and that by watching an earthworm move, eat, sleep, defecate, and copulate, the students might gain more understanding of the life structure of an earthworm than they would by prodding a dead one. Instead, as the student grows older, he finds bigger animals at his disposal for dissection: The frog is popular in American middle schools, and the fetal pig and the cat are often used in high school level science classes.

An undocumented number of classroom-dissected animals are taken straight from the wilderness.[5] Though this practice occurs for mostly frogs, fish, and other small creatures, it provokes the unsettling image of someone’s missing pet cat ending up on a lab table somewhere. Additionally, the removal of frogs and other such animals from their natural habitats creates a direct ecological disturbance in the area from which they were taken. If a biological supply company finds and takes a score of frogs from a lake, that whole lake’s ecosystem will be upset. Animals that the frogs ate, such as flies, will become relatively overpopulative, and animals that ate the frogs will go hungry.

Ostensibly, the aim of the dissection of these animals is to teach students how different life-sustaining systems - respiratory, endocrine, digestive, etc. - are aligned inside the body of something that was or could be alive. Medical students still dissect human cadavers to gain comfort with the body’s structure, even though doctors and lay scientists have been doing this for centuries. If dissection really does provide a progressive and dynamic approach to life science education, as Carolina and our schools would have us convinced, why are the practitioners of vivisection so ignorant of past scientific experimentation? Very graphic and comprehensive pictorial and audiovisual tutorials - tours, really - of dissections are made available by these same biological supply companies for student use, in the event that a student might protest the dissection lab. Several states have laws on the books governing a student’s right to an alternative lab in the case of dissection. [6] These tutorials are considered acceptable alternatives to the dissection itself; in other words, state education departments think that audiovisual tutorials are equal to dissections in terms of education value. If this equality is true, then why waste school resources each year on millions of dead animals when a simple videotape will teach the same lessons?

As students, we are supposed to learn from history; as scientists, from the history of science. We accept certain facts or truths, based on prior scientific inquiry, and then we move on with our observations from there. This process is why we as a society are not still stuck with Copernicus’ vision of the universe or Dalton’s version of the atom. We develop new technologies based on old implements of exploration; we leave our conclusions open-ended for the next scientist to refute or confirm. The scientific community already knows what the inside of a frog looks like. In fact, diagrams of such are well-documented and readily available for free on the internet, and likely can be found in science textbooks as well. Do we really need students to sink their scalpels into millions of frogs each year to illustrate the point of identical anatomies? Unless such practices yield a sensitivity to animals as close anatomical kin to humans, no real reason exists for classroom vivisection to continue. Seeing photos or even diagrams will help the student understand the anatomy of an animal without his having to slice any dermal tissue layers.

This report is not intended to heave vitriol on the practice of dissection because of some ulterior moral rationale; rather, I aim to question the very necessity of this practice in light of previous scientific findings. We are living in the Information Age, and at least in this country, information is free - free in libraries, free online, free in the minds of teachers and scientists who have recorded their research for the entire community to build upon. With all this freedom and access, students no longer have a need to dissect their own frogs, pigs, or cats. They can use the knowledge gleaned from previous dissections to make new and relevant observations about how bodies work, how animals’ bodies are similar and different to our own, and how as members of the scientific community, we have a responsibility to protect that which we study.


[1] American Anti-Vivisection Society, “FAQ’s,” available online at [http://www.aavs.org/faq.html] 18 November 2006. [2] The Humane Society of America, “Dissection Campaign Packet,” available online at [http://www.hsus.org/animals_in_research/animals_in_education/dissection_campaign_packet.html] 18 November 2006. [3] Carolina: World-Class Support for Science & Math, “Preserved Organisms,” available online at [https://www2.carolina.com/webapp/wcs/stores/servlet/CategoryDisplay?catalogId=10101&storeId=10151&categoryId=98&langId=-1&parent_category_rn=1285&catLevel=1&bottom=N&top=N] 19 November, 2006. [4] Carolina: World-Class Support for Science & Math, “National Science Content Standards,” available online at [http://www.carolina.com/general/company/standards_k_4.asp] 19 November 2006. [5] People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, “Dissection: Lessons in Cruelty,” available online at [http://www.peta.org/mc/factsheet_display.asp?ID=92] 17 November 2006. [6] Gary L. Francione & Anna E. Charlton, “Vivisection and Dissection in the Classroom: A Guide to Conscientious Objection,” available online at [http://www.animal-law.org/books/vivad.htm] 18 November 2006.

Sources Consulted

1) Associated Press, “In Some Biology Classes, Dissecting is Optional,” published in the New York Times, 6 September 2004, available online at [http://select.nytimes.com/search/restricted/article?res=F30810FD35550C758CDDA00894DC404482] 19 November 2006.

2) American Anti-Vivisection Society available online at [http://www.aavs.org] 17 November 2006.

3) Carolina Biological Supply Company, “Online Catalogue,” available online at [https://www2.carolina.com/webapp/wcs/stores/servlet/StoreCatalogDisplay?storeId=10151&catalogId=10101&langId=-1] 19 November 2006.

4) Cornell University BioG 101-104 course staff, “Frog Morphology & Physiology Tutorials,” available online at [http://biog-101-104.bio.cornell.edu/Biog101_104/tutorials/frog.html] 18 November 2006.

5) Francione, Gary L., and Anna E. Charlton. “Vivisection and Dissection: A Guide to Conscientious Objection,” available online at [http://www.animal-law.org/books/vivad.htm] 18 November 2006.

6) The Humane Society of the United States available online at [http://www.hsus.org/] 19 November 2006.

7) Madrazo, Gerry M., Jr. “Debate over Dissection: Dissecting a classroom dilemma,” available online at [http://www.findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_qa4049/is_200204/ai_n9034203] 19 November 2006.

8) NPR: Gross Anatomy, Body Donation. Melissa Block, “Lessons from the Gross Anatomy Lab,” available online at [http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=4136864] 18 November 2006.

9) People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals available online at [http://www.peta.org] 17 November 2006.

10) Regan, Tom. The Case for Animal Rights, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004).

11) Singer, Peter. Animal Liberation, (New York: HarperCollins Publishers Inc., 2002).


TJC's picture

Just a Comment

You write: "Do we really need students to sink their scalpels into millions of frogs each year to illustrate the point of identical anatomies?" The truth is that not all anatomy is the same. As a professor I make sure that this fact is not lost on the students by making them examine all the other dissections in the course. This is doubly true for med/vet students since they are going into more detail than other students. We all have slight differences and there are drastic differences from individual to individual as well. For instance, some of us have muscles others do not, nerves that others do not, etc. You can say that in lecture but it won't sink in until you start to experience it.

Avilash's picture


Dissection unlike another science experiment that gives a student a practical insight. Some are not keen with this idea but its primarily requied for upgrading to higher level of research THAT LEADS INTO A BETTER FUTURE

Serendip Visitor's picture

Dissection is wrong. It

Dissection is wrong. It basically gives young kids the idea that they are better than other organisms. Which, in some ways, we are but that doesn't give us the right to hack into their bodies for 'research'. Personally, I have never met a child who wants to do such a thing. If you are going to be a vet or doctor, you ought to know what you are dealing with. Otherwise, try an online dissection. Trust me, some are just as disgusting.

Btw: Canadian phd guy, it's bred not bread.

Anonymous's picture

I think dissection is a

I think dissection is a nessesity of learning.
It isn't for everyone, i'll grant you that, but,
for those interested in becoming doctors and nurses,
it should be required.
I'd rather have a doctor who has seen the inside of a human body from first hand experiance before he sticks his scapal into me.

Arielle B. Schecter's picture

I agree. But this "first

I agree. But this "first hand" experience of seeing the inside of a human body would require dissection of a human body, and not necessarily an animal body. My point concerns what I see as a waste of life when thousands, if not millions, of animals are killed for students in high school biology class, not all of whom are bound for med-school.

Anonymous's picture


Thank you so much. I am in 8th grade and though I am not afraid to dissect, I feel I should not have to be responsible for a killing of animal with no rights when I can learn the same as my fellow students by taking advantage of other resources. Thank you for this great short essay that helped outline my plans to defy all of 8th grade science. You helped a bunch! I am going out with a title or an F, either way, I am doing the right thing.

Anonymous's picture

Dissection laws in Canada and US

I am a Canadian PhD student living in Sweden and I am writing a paper regarding alternatives to dissection. I am wondering if someone knows how I can find out the laws in different countries regarding animals being bread for dissection. I know in Sweden it is illegal to do such a thing and the animals dissected in my institution are ordered from the medical institution where they are bread for other purposes. But how can I find out about Canada and the US?

Rebecca Hyman's picture

Animal Rights vs. Scientific Discovery

Dear Arielle,

Hello, my name is Rebecca and I am writing to you because I am currently a student in college writing a research paper on this very topic. However, I am researching the opposing viewpoints of PETA leaders and Scientific necessity on this subject matter. I would be interested once I have more information to do an interview with you on your personal feelings about technology and how far we have advanced is it truly necessary to conduct dissection in a high school classroom. I am very excited about the topic I have chosen because I take the viewpoint of animal-rights activist but it would be interesting to hear another persons thoughts. I would appreciate any information other than this article that you have to learn from someone who has really researched this topic. Thank you for your time and consideration.


Rebecca Hyman

Anonymous's picture

I need help

I am a Student at bastrop high School In bastrop LA and veen though I told my school that I amangenst dissection I am still force to dissect of to get a Zero what should i do

Sciencee Student!'s picture

Reply To : I Need Help !

Dear anonymous student i see you are against kids well students disecting animals we students disect them 4 a reason an it is strictly for educational purposes for example for science fairs one good thing here at my schools science fair is that the sceince fair teacher (Mrs.Rosario) wont let us disect any other animal besides worms. so listen here its great well actually its wonderful that you are against disection but we all need it for our scientifical purposes!.

Scientifically Yours,

Science Student (anonymous). =]

Froggy's picture

Your teacher is required to

Your teacher is required to allow you to do an alternate project. If your teacher gives you no other option, go to your guidance councelor or principal and explain your views. If you truly believe that dissection is wrong, there should be no problem but, if you dont want to do it because you dont want to, im afraid you are out of luck.

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