Opinion: Teaching Science Without Harm

Animal dissections are not needed in education.

By Katherine Groff | January 3, 2013

WIKIMEDIA, MUHAMMAD MAHDI KARIMA recent Oregon State University (OSU) study found that 25 percent of teachers surveyed who used live animals in their classrooms later released them into the wild, sometimes introducing non-native species into local environments.  Only a minority of these teachers was aware that the  animals they released could cause problems and harm to native species and ecosystems.  The study also reported that many suppliers do not think that the environmental effects of their animals are their concern.  This situation, including some teachers’ and biological supply companies’ apparent minimal awareness of the environmental consequences of certain animal-use practices, is mirrored in another widespread use of animals in education—dissection.

Amphibians, reptiles, fish, birds, and many invertebrates are among the species that are taken from natural habitats and used in dissection classes, contributing to the depletion of species diversity and imbalance in ecosystems.  Frogs, for instance, provide a natural form of pest control in ecosystems to which they are native, while non-native frogs released into the wild create infectious disease risks for fragile, native populations.

Furthermore, it is not just the harvesting of live animals that is cause for concern.  The preservation and discarding of dead animal specimens in classrooms carries additional environmental risks.  Toxic chemicals such as formaldehyde or formalin preserve millions of animals each year.  Formaldehyde has been identified as a carcinogen in humans by the US Department of Health and Human Services’ National Toxicology Program, and the Environmental Protection Agency has designated it as “a hazardous air pollutant, water pollutant, and waste constituent.”  The scope of the toxic-chemical waste generated by the disposal of dissection specimens makes the practice a problem not just for teachers and students, but for the public and the environment as well.  Unfortunately, the extent of the environmental impact of killing, preserving, and discarding animals for science classes has yet to be assessed in a full impact study.

While the environmental harm caused by the procurement of fish and other species for consumption and/or show is also a significant concern, millions of animals are caught each year from the wild or raised by biological supply companies for educational purposes and discarded as hazardous waste.  The Johns Hopkins University Center for Alternatives to Animal Testing has estimated that 6 million vertebrate animals are dissected in US high schools each year.  Use in the United States for all educational purposes was estimated at nearly 10 million vertebrates and 10 million invertebrates.

This unnecessary use is especially concerning considering that there are more effective, technologically advanced, and environmentally-friendly options available.  According to Marge Peppercorn, a Harvard-trained physician and medical advisor to the New England Anti-Vivisection Society, “Comparative studies have shown time and again that alternatives to dissection—from computer programs to models that are more realistic than formalin-fixed ‘specimens’—are as educationally effective, and in most cases more so, than animal dissection.  If medical and veterinary schools are rapidly replacing animals with alternatives, why shouldn’t this also be happening at the high school level?”

The use of animals in schools makes an impression on young minds, contributing to adopted attitudes and ethics surrounding such use.  Using alternatives can make an enormous contribution to the environmental awareness of students and increase critical thinking regarding the effects of human use of animals on the environment, as well as the important contemporary ethical challenges that face human-animal relationships across fields.

Luckily, the vast majority of teachers want to be a part of the solution, and there are scientifically viable solutions to questionable animal use in science education that allow teachers to guide their students’ lessons in comparative anatomy and other courses in a more environmentally conscious and animal friendly way.  The environmental effects of using animals in education emphasize the need for greater consideration and adoption of alternatives.

Katherine Groff holds a Master of Science in Fisheries and Wildlife from Michigan State University and is a Programs and Research Associate at the New England Anti-Vivisection Society (NEAVS).

For an argument on keeping hands-on activities like dissection in the classroom, see this opposing opinion piece.

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Avatar of: bugss6


Posts: 1

January 3, 2013

Learning biology w/out actual specimens is like learning how to swim w/out getting in the water.

Avatar of: GerryS


Posts: 37

January 3, 2013


Thank you for your opinion.  I wish to make a couple of comments.

First of all, the use of formalin and formaldehyde is unnecessary in many cases where dissection is done.  There are alternatives that are in use which are much better suited for dissection.

Secondly, I thought a lesson was learned about dumping non-native species into the environment when baby alligators used to be dumped into the sewers and they were later found growing very large there.  Nice, but we do not learn very well, do we.  This ignorance is reprehensible and inexcusable.

Thirdly, when we did dissections of various preserved species in high school, they gave me a much deeper appreciation of life in its intricacy.  Computer models are no match for hands on experience, experience and respect which to this day I still use.  Computer models provide a detached and impersonal view of creatures that cannot be matched by this experience.  Having lived prior to the computer age and into the computer age, I have the serious objection that we have become over-dependent on them.  They have made us cold and brutal and impersonal in our relationship with this world and one another.  (For example, at the time of the Civil War 15% of soldiers could be induced to shoot at their enemy to kill.  That is why the British used non-rifled barrels in their guns.  Currently that number is up to 95%, most likely due to what some of my "peace-movement" friends called computer "military games" in which one repeatedly killed others.  And the psychological wounds of such have not changed, but lack of a sense of consequence has become status-quo.)    If one screws up on a computer, they can go back and re-start the program or game.  Nature is not that way.  Nature requires a hands-on approach in order to learn that it is a thing that can be permanently and irreversibly damaged, killed, destroyed or on the other hand helped and nurtured.  Computers do not teach that dead is dead.  Computer models can only be used as a pre-requisite to the hands on, or no sensitivity or sense of practicality in relating to nature will occur.

Avatar of: MWHS


Posts: 1

January 3, 2013

While there may be valid reasons for reducing or eliminating some dissection at the high school level, the three presented here are not on the list. It would be only a very naive teacher who would allow lab specimens to be released. Here in California (as do other states as well), game laws do not allow the importation of many of the species this article may be referring to. On the second point, new nontoxic chemicals (or dry preservation) have been developed to overcome the carcinogen danger. And on the last point, as a life science teacher for more than 25 years, I can assure the reader that real dissection, done in a controlled and carefully directed manner, has far greater value than digital presentations. The key is careful dissection. If the instructor does not have very specific reasons for using natural specimens, then by all means use digital media. But if the goal is for the student to really understand the structure of the organism, then dissection is a necessity.

Avatar of: mightythor


Posts: 85

January 3, 2013

I am old fashioned.  I was taught that science (as opposed to various forms of dogma) depends on verification by direct personal observation of the subject under consideration, by the individual investigator.  This is THE rock-bottom core principle of science.  Science is, must be, hands-on -- or it isn't science.  If we are not teaching this to kids, we are not teaching science.  I think we often fail to emphasize this principle enough, and it leads to widespread misunderstanding by the general public of what science really is. 

We have a dilemma.  In our legitimate concern to make students scientifically literate, we try to teach them as much information as possible.  The most efficient way to teach information is through textbooks and various electronic media that are coming to replace textbooks -- including computer simulations.  Friends this is not science.  It is just another form of dogma.  You can teach the subject matter of science from textbooks, you can teach anatomy from textbooks, or chemistry, or paleontology.  But  you can't teach science from textbooks, by definition.  And I would argue that it is more important in a general curriculum to teach science than to teach anatomy.  Don't understand me wrong.  Anatomy is important.  But it is not the most important thing.

Our dilemma is compounded by the fact that most hands-on science is beyond the scope of a classroom setting, and lots of hands-on classroom science takes the form of highly structured exercises.  One of the best forms of hands on science that is well adapted to the classroom is dissection of biological specimens.  No, you CANNOT replace it with computer simulations or models, not without teaching the absolutely WRONG lesson about what science really is.  Please, please, please, don't banish this last little bit of actual science from the classroom.

Avatar of: Mary Finelli

Mary Finelli

Posts: 27

January 3, 2013

Dissection is a major turnoff to science by many students who recognize what an unnecessary and disrespectful exploitation of sentient life it is. These are the very empathic, considerate students we want involved in life sciences. For others, it instills a sense of disrespect and disregard for life. Anyone who has been in a grade school or college class where dissection was done can probably attest to that.

That dissection has been successfully replaced in many schools with superior, humane alternatives shows that it can and should be done. There is no valid justification for it.

Avatar of: Salticidologist


Posts: 56

January 3, 2013

I had a creative teacher in 7th grade who collected road kill, mostly dogs and cats, and froze them for later classroom dissection.  One of my high school teachers raised rabbits for this purpose.  I have dissected a large racoon killed by a car, and this was very instructive.  Once, while teaching undergraduate biology at Iowa, I substituted large cockroach dissection (large species from research in department) for frogs, and this was a far better learning exercise as there was a lot more detail that could be seen under the microscope.  Teaching invertebrate zoology at Oregon State, I used donated frozen Onychoteuthis bait squid for classroom dissection, and that was a remarkable exercise.  So, there are a lot of creative alternatives.  I recommend that instructors capture and rear local tadpoles if they want to do frog dissection (or vivisection, as one can learn a lot about capillaries from anesthetized frogs). For university level parasitology, we got a lot of fresh material from a local slaughterhouse. There are a lot of creative alternatives.  Everything must be done with the utmost of respect.  We are a carnivorous society, but that does not preclude respect for the lives that we take.

Avatar of: Salticidologist


Posts: 56

January 3, 2013

I will add that there are many 'hands on science' options for instructors that can greatly motivate students.  One of these is the collection and study of protists and small crustaceans in freshwater or marine habitats.  Another is the field observation of insect behavior in natural settings, including macrophotography.  Dissection can be used to teach certain things, but it is only one of many tools.  When I took ornithology, we dissected domestic chickens after the farm girls in our class demonstrated their skill at killing these, and they actually took them home for dinner after our dissection.  I think the thing I saw that bothered me the most was the collection and pickling of 100's of lizards of a single species at one locality by museum people at Berkeley, for trade with other museums.  To me, this was very disrespectful of life, and greatly in excess of scientific 'necessity'.

Avatar of: Dr Andrew Knight

Dr Andrew Knight

Posts: 2

January 4, 2013


The highly toxic chemicals used to preserve dissection specimens between classes can also present health hazards, raising the potential for legal and financial liability should students suffer exposure-related adverse health effects. Formaldehyde, for example, is widely used. It is very efficiently absorbed from inspired air, and is a potent genotoxin, primarily via DNA–protein cross-linkage. Population studies have associated occupational formaldehyde exposure with increased cancer risks at various sites, including the nasal cavities, nasopharynx, lung, brain, pancreas, prostate, colon, and lymphohaematopoietic (bone marrow, splenic, blood, and lymphatic) system (Orsière et al. 2006). Accordingly, the use of formaldehyde is banned from several applications under the EU’s Biocidal Products Directive (98/8/EC).


Exposure levels in gross anatomy laboratories used by Japanese medical students, for example, may significantly exceed permitted safe limits (Takayanagi et al. 2007, Uchiyama 2010). In my experience and that of veterinary student colleagues between 1998 and 2006, recommended safety guidelines such as the use of gloves, gowns, and masks are not commonly met with full compliance in veterinary schools. These veterinary schools all had high standards, and this limited survey suggests that there may be a wider problem internationally, rather than a problem with these specific schools.


Few students need to use animals as much as veterinary students. Yet, not even we need to harm animals to successfully complete our training. Humane teaching options include high quality videos, computer simulations, ethically-sourced cadavers (from animals that have died naturally, in accidents, or been euthanised for medical reasons), models and surgical simulators, non-invasive self-experimentation and supervised clinical experiences. These are described in detail in my recent book, The Costs and Benefits of Animal Experiments (Palgrave Macmillan 2011, bit.ly/RvfJGf). Almost all published studies have shown that students using such methods acquire knowledge or practical skills as well as those trained via harmful animal use; indeed, around a third show they do better. Over 30 such studies covering virtually all educational level and disciplines using animals are summarised at bit.ly/Uo0oDl.


As a student I learnt veterinary surgery using models and ethically sourced cadavers, and by assisting with beneficial surgery on real patients, under close supervision – similarly to the training of physicians. I gained around five times the surgical experience of my classmates, and am a competent practicing veterinary surgeon today. Best of all, I have the knowledge that I didn’t harm or kill animals to complete my education. The times are long past when there may have been any excuse to do so. 




- European Veterinary Specialist in Welfare Science, Ethics & Law

- Fellow, Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics

Avatar of: Buttmonki


Posts: 1

January 5, 2013

" Only a minority of these teachers was aware that the  animals they released could cause problems and harm to native species and ecosystems."

The most disturbing part of this article.  How can a (presumably) biology teacher not be aware of the impact of introducing non native species to the native species of an ecosystem.  Surely this is one of the most important things that should be taught in biology?  

Stopping kids releasing their exotic birds/frogs/turtles into the wild or growing a potentially invasive plant in their garden is one of the things they are most likely to actually need to know in practical day to day life.  What do they actually teach in biology these days?!

Avatar of: darwinbot


Posts: 12

January 7, 2013

I don't really know if the issue raised here has the potential to be a serious one for the environment, but I do feel that killing animals at the high school level seems unnecessary; while hands-on experience is certainly the best way to get kids interested in science, hands-on animal anatomy seems only one of scores of possible alternatives--couldn't chemistry and physics live experiments and plant dissection supply the necessary hands-on experience? and if you must use animals, how about using (probably cheaper) unsold three-day-old fish and crustaceans from local fishmarkets (as I did in my undergraduate biology classes), or euthanised animals from vets (even if you won't probably get one animal per student, you can still have group dissections...). All in all, it seems more sensible, and respectful to both animals and sensitive kids, to set aside dissection and vivisection--if we must use them--for higher education, instead of wasting lives on classes in which only a small fraction of students will go on to become professional scientist.

Also, are there any statistics on the percentages of highschoolers who enroll in scientific college/university courses in schools/countries where live dissections are/aren't used?

January 9, 2013

Nice picture.


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