You Don’t Need to Dissect Animals to Learn Anatomy

The Rise for Animals Team, August 20, 2023

The dissection of an animal specimen may mark a significant turning point in a young person’s views on ethics and animal sentience. 

Throughout childhood, non-human animals are beloved characters in classic books and favorite films. They are the cuddly plush beings snuggled to sleep each night, the companion animals rounding out human families, and the wild outdoor creatures admired and appreciated from a distance. 

An animal’s dissection in the classroom is, for many, the first time one is expected to directly treat a non-human being as a tool for human use and disposal, rather than a sentient lifeform deserving of care, autonomy, and respect. 

In the U.S., a student’s first exposure to animal dissection is often during an anatomy lesson in a middle school classroom. 

Now an adult, one former Massachusetts public school student looks back on her experience with dissection in the classroom: 

I was 12 and I didn’t want to dissect a frog. At the time, I didn’t know there were other options, so I just hung back while the others in my group handled the scalpel. I was unwilling to partake in the removal of organs from the cold, lifeless frog splayed and pinned on the table before us. As a result, I failed the day’s anatomy lesson. 

A 2010 Society & Animals survey indicates the above student was not alone in her objection to the dissection of an animal specimen.

According to the survey, over one-third of biology students who participated in an animal dissection had mixed feelings about it due to personal, ethical, cultural, religious, and/or environmental concerns.

7.6% of surveyed students indicated they told their teachers they objected to animal dissection but were convinced to participate anyway. 

Just 6.2% of surveyed students indicated objection to dissection and were given an alternative project—like using a 3-D model or computer program—to satisfy lesson requirements. 

2.1% refused to participate and were given failing grades. 4.2% of students skipped class and avoided the dissection lesson altogether. 

There are many reasons to object to the dissection of animals in the classroom. 

  • Animal Suffering: Over 10 million animals—including frogs, rats, cats, sheep, and more—are killed and used in classroom dissection each year.
  • Environment: Many animals used in classroom dissections are taken from the wild, endangering species and disrupting delicate ecosystems that are already at risk due to habitat destruction and pollution.
  • Health and Safety: Specimen-preserving chemicals like formaldehyde can cause short-term irritation to humans’ eyes, noses, throats, and lungs, and even cause serious long-term health issues after prolonged exposure. Animal dissection is also upsetting and may be detrimental to the mental health of those who have ethical objections. 
  • Student Learning: Several studies show that students learn as well or better using alternatives to dissection. These alternatives support STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics) initiatives. 
  • Cost Savings: The use of cruelty-free alternatives can save school districts money every year. Anatomical models and software programs are reusable again and again, year after year. 

In the U.S., many states have laws and policies for students’ access to alternatives to animal dissection.

In 1987, high school student and ethical vegetarian Jenifer Graham sued her school for not allowing her to pursue an alternative lesson to traditional dissection. Nine months later, California became the first state to protect students’ rights to conscientious objection.

Today, 21 states plus Washington, D.C. have a law or a state-level education policy allowing students to opt out of animal dissection. You can see where your state stands on the map below:

Students who attend school in states with dissection choice laws or policies must be given an alternative lesson to animal dissection if they request it. And even in states without such statewide regulations, students should still request an alternative; many educators, schools, and districts have lower-level policies that allow students to pursue humane lessons without penalty.

Together, let’s end the expectation that animal exploitation in the form of animal specimen dissection is necessary to student learning. 

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