Opinion: Keep Animals in the Classroom

The release of non-native organisms into the environment by high school teachers should not be used as an argument to stop teaching by hands-on demonstration.

By Richard Naftalin | January 3, 2013

WIKIMEDIA, MATTHIEU GODBOUTA recent study out of Oregon State University suggested that school teachers in North America could be contributing to the invasive species problem by releasing the live animals they use as teaching tools. “As many as 1,000 different non-native organisms used in the classroom are being released into the wild by school teachers,” Oregon State’s Sam Chan said in a press release. As such, the study is being used by some as an argument against the use of animals in the classroom. I strongly disagree with these sentiments. The release of a handful of classroom animals is unlikely to have any major repercussions on the local ecosystem. Rather, I would venture to guess, this supposed environmental concern is merely a scare story driven by people who oppose vivisection, or the use of live animal dissection for teaching purposes.

What are we talking about here? “Oregon teachers who have ordered crayfish that originate in the Pacific Northwest have found that their mortality is extremely high, so many have taken to ordering crayfish from distributors who get their supply from Louisiana,” Chan explained in the release. “The problem is that we have no idea whether those crayfish may carry diseases or parasites that may be problematic if those animals are released into the wild here.”

It may of course be true that Louisiana crayfish carry disease, but how many animals are actually released into the wild by this particular route?  Chan is pretty vague about the numerical extent of this grave problem.  What about the thousands of live animals indiscriminately thrown away by restaurants, fish markets, lobster pounds, regular fish consumers, anglers, and aquarium owners, who find they have a surplus of animals and decide to dispose of them into the environment? These animals may also carry disease, and probably outnumber those animals released from the classroom by several orders of magnitude.

Perhaps the concern raised over the “dangers” posed to the environment by well-meaning but careless biology teachers is merely a ruse for raising the age-old drama propagated by anti-vivisectionists, who argue that alternatives to dissection, such as computer simulations and plastic models, are just as effective teaching tool as animal dissection. But there is no doubt that the act of dissection is in itself useful. Experimentation with animal tissues such as heart or nerve muscle preparations is also very instructive.  One may be able to learn the same material from computer programs, but simulations are two dimensional and miss out on the veracity of the real thing, which certainly reinforces the learning experience.  Learning by direct observation and action is a better way to stimulate students’ interest and to deepen their understanding than teaching by rote.  There is no substitute for seeing for oneself. 

But anti-vivisectionists are on a head-strong campaign to eliminate such hands-on learning. They first create an emotional climate antipathetic to any form of biology teaching by actual demonstration.  By spreading rumors about invasive crayfish destroying the native species, they are preying on the emotions of conservation-minded folk, who will be dismayed and will start agitating as school meetings and in the local press.  The anti-vivisectionists pick on biology teachers because they are vulnerable to this kind of persuasion and know that they will not be protected from it by their administrators, local politicians, or religious leaders. Newspapers, whose only instincts are to follow the crowd, will pick up the story and propagate the agitation.   

But in reality, there is no evidence to suggest that local ecosystems will suffer. And even if we err on the side of precaution, there are less drastic solutions than halting the purchase of animals for teaching purposes altogether. Perhaps, for example, teachers who find they have a few crayfish left over after class can just follow the advice published in The Oregonian: take them home in a strong bag, then boil up a large pot of water. They are delicious on freshly buttered bread with lettuce and a touch of tomato ketchup and mayo.      

Richard Naftalin is Emeritus Professor of Physiology at King's College London. He was trained in medicine at Glasgow University and in biochemistry London University.

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

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Avatar of: ironjustice


Posts: 43

January 3, 2013

The practice insinuates it is alright to cage an animal for fun. Can one imagine being forced to sit in a classroom with a caged animal is enough , arguably , legally , to make it turn into another Hook.

Avatar of: Paul Stein

Paul Stein

Posts: 237

January 3, 2013

The article points out another example of those wishing to stretch the truth beyond the breaking point for their own anti-science political agenda.  Everyone must remain ever vigilant to counter these whenever and wherever possible.

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.

Avatar of: Dr Andrew Knight

Dr Andrew Knight

Posts: 2

January 4, 2013


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). Almost all published studies have shown that sgtudents 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. 


Avatar of: Ivan Kelly

Ivan Kelly

Posts: 1

January 4, 2013

When ever I do a dissection in the classroom, it is usually a rat. I always ask my students what they would do to a rodent in their home? Nearly all agree they would kill it. So why is it wrong to use a few for Science? The rats I purchase are from a pet store and are sold as food for snakes. I inform the kids that the method I used to kill the specimen is more humane than the fate the rodent would have had if it were constricted by a snake.
Avatar of: dpatrick


Posts: 1

January 5, 2013

I'm a supporter of dissection as part of a science curriculum.  Admittedly, I have a slightly different background from the average student of biology - my dad was a biology teacher and I had my first dissection kit (along with a microscope) at an early age.  What dissection taught me wasn't the cold facts of anatomy - those can be learned through a variety of other methods.  Rather, dissection, seeing the reality of plant structure, earthworm anatomy, cricket anatomy, frog anatomy, and so on, was a deep, profound, poetic appreciation for the miracle of life,  the reality of evolution, and the fragility of our place on this earth.  Dissection must be appropriate to the level of study, carefully conducted and supervised, and managed with due regard for the issues of waste of resources, disposal, and so forth.  Dissection is not with practical concerns that must be managed, or ethical concerns that must be acknowledged and addressed.  But for an appreciation of the fundamental biological reality of life, and as training for future scientists, it cannot be replaced. 

Avatar of: Balfazaar


Posts: 1

January 5, 2013

I have personally found in my classroom (I teach biology in a high school classroom), that disection does not further students interests, or give them a greater scope of biology. I'm not sure where all that is coming from, it sounds like the same tired rhetoric I've been hearing from seniors incapable of understanding that technology has advanced the point that we don't need disections. They gross students out, make them disinterested in science as a whole, and has disastrous effects on their interests in studying. To be perfectly honest, even though there are technologies that simulate disections that keep kids interested twice as much, they still come out learning more simply by studying and seeing than by doing. They're too distracted with the fact that they're dealing with a once living creature. Yes, some kids flourish and take something away from the experience. I personally did. But, I also have to take into account that half my kids dread disection so bad that they worry only about getting it done with; gaining them absolutely nothing* in the way of understanding. 

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?


Avatar of: kristindewey


Posts: 7

April 8, 2013

The bottom line is that I would hope that responsible biology teachers (whether at the high school or college level) would be mindful enough to NOT release non-native species into their own environment. Rather, feed it to another animal, or call another educator, animal store, or other source to properly dispose of the live animal.

I learned a lot from hands on dissection at high school and college level. I'm for dissection in the classroom. It's better for that high school kid to learn then that they really can't handle dissection at that level than to go through a year of college and learn at a more expensive cost.

Someone somewhere once thought Zebra mussels were not harmful either. Look what they have done to the waterways in North America.

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