Skip to main content

The Battle Over High School Animal Dissection

Is the biology class tradition a useful rite of passage or a schoolroom relic?
  • Author:
  • Updated:
(Photo: 31867959@N04/Flickr)

(Photo: 31867959@N04/Flickr)

Teachers knew they had a problem when photos of dissected cats began appearing on Facebook.

The high schoolers were pictured posing with the dead animals. One student held up a cat's head and pretended to lick it. The head of another turned up in a student’s locker. After the media caught wind of the lurid antics back in June of 2012, one student wrote on Facebook: “im famous bitches.”

Karen Coyne, who had taught English for a decade at Newport Harbor High School in Newport Beach (a wealthy suburb south of Los Angeles), was worried. A vegan and animal rights advocate, she also advised a school club, Compassion in Action. A photo on its website shows her hugging a Labrador retriever.

According to a court filing, Coyne was concerned animal dissection might wreak emotional havoc on impressionable teens. She believed the school wasn’t giving students the chance to opt out of dissecting animals, a right that California and more than a dozen states guarantee. Coyne heard students were dropping science and anatomy classes, where dissection was required.

After the photos appeared on Facebook, officials at the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, a non-profit in Washington, D.C., wrote to the school district. They asked the school to suspend animal dissections, interview the science teacher, and ask a psychologist to evaluate the culprits, according to OC Weekly's reporting at the time.

More than two dozen studies performed over the last 35 years show that computer programs and other alternatives teach students just as well as or better than animal dissection.

The photos were removed from Facebook, and the school halted cat dissections, according to the Orange County Register. A district spokeswoman recently told Pacific Standard that students always had the choice to opt-out of animal dissections. But a whistleblower lawsuit filed last month by Coyne, now 43, contends otherwise.

The lawsuit is the latest punch in a decades-old pedagogical debate over animal dissection, one that has found its way to courtrooms and statehouses across the United States. For many of us, incising the rubbery flesh of a frog or fetal pig was just another schoolroom rite of passage. But, in our trigger-warning era, some animal rights advocates suggest it isn't an appropriate one.

THE CLASSROOM REBELLION AGAINST animal dissection actually began in California. In 1987, 15-year-old Jennifer Graham refused to cut into a dead frog, calling the practice inhumane. Graham sued her school district, demanding a choice other than dissection; state lawmakers ultimately passed legislation upholding a student’s right to opt out for moral reasons.

In the years that followed, as the animal rights movement proliferated and more young people refused to eat meat or wear animal products, more states added students’ rights laws and policies.

Animal rights groups, meanwhile, pushed hard to wipe out animal dissection, targeting both educators and students. Some dead cats, they contended, come from “bunchers,” dealers who unlawfully obtain the animals from shelters or capture them on the streets of Mexico. They said suppliers raise mice, rats, and rabbits in cramped and filthy cages.

On YouTube, a channel called Peta2TV shows gruesome images of dead animals with the hashtag #Dissectionkills. A tagline reads: “What your teacher never told you about dissection.”

Their arguments also extend to medical research that saves human lives. Several animal rights groups suggest ending all animal research. Under their quixotic plans, new life-saving medicines would be tested on cadavers and computer programs.

Today nearly half of all states have enacted laws and policies to accommodate students’ beliefs; at least 17 specifically reference animal dissection, according to information compiled by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. Michigan is among the latest. Internationally, countries like India have banned animal dissection in schools and universities. In the U.S., only a few medical schools continue to use animals to teach medical students, according to animal welfare advocates.

David Evans, the executive director of the National Science Teachers Association, says the shift toward accommodating students’ beliefs is part of a larger trend, one that includes trigger warnings, notifications meant to alert students of class materials that could upset them.

That this heightened mindfulness now permeates science class doesn’t surprise Evans. “There is movement in many areas to be respectful of students,” he says. “There’s more individual flexibility.”

THAT FLEXIBILITY MEANS THAT more students are learning on computer programs that simulate dissection. The programs go by names like Digital Frog and Froguts, with frogs, squid, fetal pigs, starfish, and cow eyes all now available for virtual exploration.

Samantha Suiter, a science education specialist with PETA, says they want to put this technology in the hands of more teachers. The organization donates virtual dissection software to teachers and school districts and offers free training. Younger, tech-savvy teachers are more receptive than veteran teachers, according to Suiter. These veterans’ retirement could signal a shift in classroom practices, Suiter believes.

“I absolutely think the day will come when animal dissections are a thing of the past,” Suiter says.

More than two dozen studies performed over the last 35 years show that computer programs and other alternatives teach students just as well as or better than animal dissection; a couple others concluded the real thing is better, according to a review by the Humane Society of the United States.

Much of the research was conducted on college-age students rather than minors because the age group is easier to study. One of the few studies on high school students, published in 1994 in The American Biology Teacher, showed high school students performed equally well on tests whether they dissected an animal or used a computer program. But, four years later, that same journal published a study showing that undergrads who dissected fetal pigs earned higher scores than students who studied on a computerized MacPig.

A study of Canadian science and biology teachers, published in 2012 in the International Journal of Environmental & Science Education, found teachers were largely dissatisfied with dissection alternatives and “strongly favored” animal dissection.

The National Science Teachers Association, which represents 55,000 science teachers, stands behind the teaching method, says Evans, who heads the body.

Although the organization’s policy statement on animal dissection encourages more research into alternatives, “there isn’t any substitute for the real thing,” Evans says.

“You can study the physics of music and study the great composers, but that’s not going to make you a violinist,” he says. “Learning is a sensory experience and touching things matters.”

COYNE, WHO FILED THE lawsuit, now teaches at another school. She didn’t respond to questions emailed to her attorney, but in a televised interview earlier this month on PBS, she said she continues to believe dissection is harmful to students.

“These kids are impressionable,” Coyne told her interviewer. “We need to teach them what’s right and wrong and if they’re learning from teachers that it’s completely acceptable to take the life of someone who is powerless and to do whatever we want with that body, then we are teaching the wrong message. In fact, in a way we’re teaching bullying, and that’s a big problem in schools today and many people know that.”

But other teachers say this kind of reasoning misses something elemental.

Douglas Allchin has taught science to high school and college students for 25 years. He has seen countless teenagers go into a dissection feeling squeamish and leave fascinated.

One student in particular stood out in his memory. Allchin now lectures on the history of science and technology at the University of Minnesota, but this was when he taught high school science in El Paso, Texas. The student was pregnant and, it turns out, so was the rat they were about to dissect. Allchin talked to the student to make sure she was comfortable with proceeding. Afterward, she told him that exploring that rat had helped her understand the changes going on in her own body.

“We think we’re teaching respect for life by not harming animals,” Allchin says, but we’re “avoiding the whole emotional lesson.” He says it’s a lesson we understood better in a different era.

“The lesson is not all about anatomy,” he says.“The lesson is that we’re flesh and bone.”