Every fall, students and others mount protests over the dissection of frogs, cats, rats, crayfish, earthworms, fetal pigs, and more. Opponents brand the practice insensitive and unnecessary. Some educators insist there’s nothing like the real thing.
Increasingly sophisticated computer simulations continue to make inroads versus actual dissection, yet the issue still stirs controversy from coast to coast.
A 16-year-old honor student in Baltimore was removed from her anatomy class in late September after refusing to dissect a cat. She was allowed back inwith the option of computer alternativesafter protesters picketed the high school.
In Las Vegas, the Clark County School Board voted earlier this year to let students opt out of dissections if they have parental support.
The new policy was adopted after a petition drive led by eighth-grader Laurie Wolff, an A student who received a C in a science class two years earlier after declining to cut up an earthworm.
Anti-dissection students also appealed for policy changes this year at a school board meeting in Little Chute, Wis., and last year before a state Senate committee in Vermont.
Little Chute student Amy Richards gave a practical reason for accommodating the dissenters. “They won’t learn much with their eyes closed because they’re disgusted,” she said.
A student delegation from Woodstock Union High School in Vermont helped get a bill introduced to allow students to use computer models instead of participating in dissections. The bill died in the Senate Education Committee.
National teachers groups maintain that dissections are a better learning tool than simulations, but recommend that instructors be sensitive to student qualms.
According to the Humane Society of the United States, eight states have approved opt-out policies: California, Florida, Illinois, Louisiana, Maine, New York, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island. A similar policy is pending in New Jersey’s legislature.
The Baltimore case illustrates how quickly a teacher’s classroom decision can become the focus of ideological controversy.
On Sept. 23, Jennifer Watson was taken out of her Kenwood High School honors anatomy class and placed in a general science class after she asked for an alternative to cat dissection. The next evening, Humane Society officials attended a school board meeting, requesting that dissection alternatives be provided districtwide.
The following day about 20 protesters picketed outside Kenwood High, and school officials announced Jennifer would be allowed back in her class. She will perform computer-simulated dissections, perhaps joined by some other students, while the rest of the class dissects cats.
“I’ve loved animals my whole life,” said Jennifer, whose family has several cats. “I was standing up for what I believe in.”
The Humane Society estimates that 6 million animalsmostly frogs, fetal pigs, and catsare dissected annually in American schools. The society distributes anti-dissection videos and loans computer software to schools interested in offering alternatives.
“Students and teachers come to us on a regular basis saying, ‘I don’t want to do this any more,'” said Lesley King, the Humane Society’s director for education and animal welfare.
She said school districts can save money by purchasing reusable dissection software rather than buying dead animals that can only be dissected once.
The 9,000-member National Association of Biology Teachers is wary of the push for alternatives. Although it urges teachers to be sensitive to students’ objections, its formal position says, “No alternative can substitute for the actual experience of dissection.”
Wayne Carley, the association’s executive director, said many who oppose dissection “act on emotion rather than intellect.”
“This is an issue of academic freedom,” he said. “A well-trained teacher has the knowledge and experience to know how best to use dissection.”
The National Science Teachers Association, which claims 53,000 members, also defends dissection but advises teachers to be flexible.
“There were few suitable alternatives when I taught, but now there are some extremely sophisticated virtual technologies,” said Wendell Mohling, a former biology teacher in Shawnee Mission, Kan., who is associate executive director of the science teachers group.
Companies now sell a wide array of dissection simulations. Science Works Inc. of Winston-Salem, N.C., for instance, offers Dissection Works Delux for under $200 per user. The bundle includes five dissection simulations: frog, crayfish, fetal pig, perch, and worm.
Other companies include Digital Frog International of Puslinch, Ontario, Canada, and Duncan Software, an online vendor with distributors throughout the East and Midwest. The former offers demos of their products, and the latter advertises an interactive, web-based version of several of its dissection simulations.
Humane Society of the United States
National Association of Biology Teachers
Digital Frog International
Science Works Inc.