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Dissecting Dissection

Students at a school in Texas played a "prank" with a cat from dissection lab. Photo from PETA website:

There’s a lot going on in my life this week, but even with my own personal dramas unfolding, both happy and sad, the thing that has moved me most is a conversation I had with a friend last Sunday. Her teenage daughter, she told me, was being compelled in her high school biology class to dissect a cat.

For a sweet young girl with two pet cats of her own at home, even the announcement of this practice had proved traumatic, but she had asked her parents not to intervene, as she also felt the pressure, like most teenagers, not to be different, not to make a scene. She had been careening through emotional conflicts ever since the teacher had announced the upcoming procedure in no uncertain terms.

As soon as the words came out of my friend’s mouth, I recoiled. I couldn’t imagine myself as a teenager having been required to do such a thing. The frog and the sheep heart had been bad enough, and suddenly long-forgotten sensations of evil in the biology classroom and lab came over me—the rank smell of formaldehyde, the freezing cold temperatures preferred by my hugely obese biology teacher, the glittering edges of the scalpels, the shockingly bright yellow strands of fat in the frog’s belly, the vaguely sexual implications in the way that the teacher had made us run our fingers into the slimy aortas of our sheep hearts while he leered at our trembling hands and bitten lips.

It isn’t that I don’t understand the need for dissections to be performed. I believe that it’s important for all young people to acquire a basic knowledge of anatomy, and I believe in the value of the higher study of biology. I even went on in college to take not only Bio 10, but also Field Biology, and in one we dissected chicken embryos and in the other we collected specimens, including insects we killed and birds and other creatures we might find dead. These classes also provided much discussion revolving around respect for the life forms with which we dealt, a wider context, if you will, than simply learning anatomy.

I also have a good friend, a former field biologist for the Fish & Wildlife Service who now teaches middle-school biology. He is far braver than I in the face of animal death, and in his many long bicycle rides, he comes across many injured animals that he puts out of their misery by breaking their necks. After he and his wife and I had observed a rabbit hit by a car one evening when we were out walking, I watched him go into the shrubs to perform this act of kindness. It is indeed only his knowledge of anatomy and his toughness in the face of death that allows him to do it, though it hurts him every time.

But for a school or a teacher to require high school students to dissect animals frequently kept in the home as pets, without doing mental health checks of these students or preparing them emotionally for such an event seems to me sadistic at the least. I told my friend so, and she encouraged her daughter to ask for an alternative assignment. Her request was granted, and she is now being allowed to do a “virtual” dissection in a separate room.

In the meantime, I found out that the Humane Society “opposes the practices of animal dissection in pre-college classrooms for numerous reasons.” Not surprisingly, most animal welfare organizations also speak out against it–PETA, the Animal Liberation Front, the Animal Welfare Institute, and In Defense of Animals. All of these organizations support the use of computerized imaging software or plastic models (both of which are long-lasting, re-usable, and ultimately cheaper) to teach anatomy to any but those involved in veterinary and other fields of learning where hands-on experience is required.

In fact, the Humane Society cites several studies that demonstrate higher levels of student learning of anatomy with computer simulations, and other studies note that the practice of dissection in high school discourages students from further study in biology because, obviously, they are not prepared to deal well with it emotionally. It is simply inappropriate and does not meet any feasible educational goals. Even the National Science Teachers Association now recommends non-dissection practices.

I also found out that Florida is one of ten states that has a law that requires that students be offered an alternative assignment without penalty (Florida passed the law in 1985). Of course, my friend’s daughter’s teacher did not exactly offer it. Instead, this young woman had to buck convention and go to the high school counselor to ask if such a thing would be possible.

To me, this indicates a real problem with this particular teacher and maybe with the school. It seems to me the teacher broke the law. But even more disturbing is that, in spite of numerous protests over the years, cat dissection is still used in numerous public school systems, including that of Miami, where my friend and her family live. Why this practice continues in any high school anywhere, I have no idea.

The issue of high school cat dissections was raised a couple of years ago in a case in which a Miami teenager was arrested and charged with a spree of cat kidnappings, killings, and dissection-like manglings. Recently, the case against this teenager, Tyler Weinman, was dismissed, and he and his father are countersuing for malicious prosecution. They claim that a pair of wild dogs killed the 33 cats that were found in the two neighborhoods that Tyler lived in with each of his divorced parents. The case had been entirely circumstantial, and the Weinmans found a forensic expert who would testify that the cats were killed by bite wounds, not the cutting instruments that Tyler supposedly had in his possession.

Whether Weinman committed any crimes in this situation or not, two things are salient. First, he behaved very strangely with the police by eagerly describing the tearing sound made when a cat’s skin was removed during his high school dissection (also reported by CBS and NBC). Secondly, it was not difficult to believe that a teenager who was having emotional difficulties with his parents’ recent divorce would commit such crimes. It was proper for the charges against Tyler Weinman to be dropped if the case could not be proven, but that does not mean that it’s not a problem for high schools to be teaching dissection of cats. In fact, the connection was so intuitive that the case immediately set off a debate about the use of cat dissections in Miami high schools.

I’m not saying that all students taught this way will go out and slaughter family pets. But it is clear at the very least that the lesson in school gave this student knowledge that he could have used to torture animals in his neighborhood. And, although the study of sociopaths is difficult and ambiguous, there is some evidence for the Graduation Hypothesis, the idea that one (of numerous) signs of a potential serial killer (of humans) is the youthful torture or abuse of animals. Why should our schools provide any potentially disturbed young men such tools?

Some educators continue to insist, however, that such instruction is beneficial. This article about the Tyler Weinmen-dissection issue quotes Milagros Fornell, associate superintendent for curriculum and instruction for Miami-Dade schools, as saying that “I don’t think you want to take your animal to a veterinarian that doesn’t know what the inside of an [actual] animal looks like.” No, I don’t. But I can’t emphasize how utterly and totally inappropriate, even stupid, I think Fornell’s response is. High school is a far cry from veterinary school. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 3,011,040 students were expected to graduate from high school in 2009, and according to the American Veterinary Medical Association, only about 2600 graduate from veterinary school every year. Those who enroll in veterinary school have been sifted by admission requirements and by their own dedication and desire to help animals, not hurt them. Even though far more graduate from medical school (16,838 in 2010), these veterinary and medical students are not equivalent as a group to all high school students.

It is also true, as one university educator noted in that last article about Tyler Weinman, that millions of cats are euthanized by shelters every year. If a cat is going to be euthanized anyway, what is the harm of using its body to teach? None. However, this line of procurement is not at all clear, and the cats and other animals used in dissection labs are obtained in a variety of other detrimental ways. At least one study cited by the Animal Liberation Front of cats obtained there noted that some procurement companies in Mexico paid for employees to go out and steal pets for $1 each. Procurement methods are often brutal and/or environmentally harmful, as noted by Dying to Learn.

For me, the justifications given by these educators are downright dodgy. If the reasons they give for continuing this practice are so clearly false, then what are the real reasons? Sheer stubbornness? Habit (it’s always been done this way)? Some questionable relationship with purveyors of dead cats, rats, frogs, and other creatures? Or just a complete avoidance of really thinking about it at all?

Most of the justifications given are based on the premise that those who oppose dissection in high schools oppose all dissections under any circumstances. And some no doubt do.

But most, including many animal welfare agencies, argue very specifically that dissection has its place. It’s only appropriate, however, a) if the students are given the proper emotional screening so that we don’t help produce any more Jeffrey Dahmers, b) if even the emotionally healthy students are of a maturity where they can handle it, c) if the lesson taught goes beyond anatomy to discuss the method of procurement to make it clear that no animals were killed expressly for the purpose of dissection, and d) if a discussion is begun about the ethical use of animals and the related problem of pet-animal overpopulation in the U.S.

And for me this last point is key to why this issue makes me think about the issue of authenticity.

In the U.S., we have a widespread schizophrenia–or at least a serious cognitive dissonance–about domestic animals. More than 62%, or more than 3 in 5, of households have at least one pet. We consider ourselves a nation of animal lovers, and the relationship between pet and person is often profound. Marketers know that “pets sleep in bed” and “get gifts.” They are often considered beloved members of their family.

Yet, according to the ASPCA, 3 out of every 10 dogs and 7 out of every 10 cats that enters a shelter is euthanized due to lack of a home. That is 3 to 4 million a year. This doesn’t even count the ones that eke out a meager existence or die from illness or injury after being abandoned or abused.

In my humble opinion, it would be of far more use for high school biology classes to take or send students to animal welfare organizations to observe, or to invite veterinarians into the classroom, and to get students talking about humane treatment of pets and other animals. I believe that your average high school student would learn far more about the sanctity of life and far more of use to our society by some participation in humane education than they do in an anatomy lab. A high school biology class could even be devoted to discussion of spay and neuter efforts and could thereby help lower the number of those cats that are euthanized every year. And, yes, I realize that some students would giggle, but such programs already exist for even younger students.

I urge everyone to find out what the practice is in their local area, and educate the educators about alternatives to animal dissections in high schools. Support strong local and state laws against animal cruelty. And instead of buying your fat and happy dog or cat one more bag of treats, make a donation to or volunteer at one of the many animal welfare agencies, national or local. If you’re an animal lover, any of these will be an act of great authenticity.

11 responses »

  1. Excellent post, Lisa.

  2. If you personally knew Tyler, you wouldn’t be writing this about him. What you think you know about this case was written by a detective trying to justify his arrest. Now that we know that Tyler is innocent, can you believe anything you’ve seen or read about the accusations against him?

    • Leota,

      My post does not pass any judgment on Tyler. You are correct that I do not know him. Clearly, there was a rush to judgment in his case, and there was not enough evidence to convict him. But it’s also clear that he did talk to the officers about dissecting cats at school. How else would they have even known this is the practice? Please note that I linked to the article that discussed the discrediting of the case against him, as well as to a couple of earlier ones to show the furor that the case caused. I am not out to get Tyler.

      My point is that if not Tyler, then some other student could use what is taught at school to do harm to domestic pets. I moved from the accusation against him (which turned out to be wrong or at least not provable) to a more theoretical or general comment about the problems with cat and other animal dissections in high schools. That’s not the same thing as saying bad things about Tyler, which I tried to be careful not to do.

      Tyler may not have tortured animals, but there are many cases where young men do. My problem is with the schools that are supposed to educate students about the sanctity of life instead in effect abetting such torture. If Tyler’s high school had not used this “teaching” technique that he then mentioned, my guess is that the officers who arrested him would have been much less likely to think him capable of the supposed acts.

  3. The notion that dissections are important to a high school education is, to put it mildly, delusional. I do remember my 11th-grade biology teacher, and the messianic glee with which she presided over our dissections of frogs, but that presumption of our scientific epiphanies was ridiculously premature.

    Showing the emotional maturity of a rebellious sixteen year-old, one of my friends pinned his frog into a crucifix pose. Seeing actual dead organs did not enrich my education in biology. All I learned during dissections was the hell-stench of formaldehyde. A dead creature was less interesting to me than a living one. I’ve correctly identified dead organs. Hooray.

    Fornell’s comment is moronically illogical, and hers is a voice of educational authority, which helps explain why this country is ranked 17th in the world in science, and 25th in math. I do need to take sick animals to a vet who knows what the insides of an animal are like, but a high school student is (ahem) not a veterinarian. By Fornell’s imbecile logic, all high school students must dissect human cadavers or else there will be no doctors in the world. By my logic, Fornell should not be superintending a school; instead, she should be attending one.

  4. Good grief. Why not human cadavers? People donate their bodies to science in great numbers. I really doubt it would make them want to go out and kill to do it again. Please. It might make students appreciate the human body. As there will soon be a shortage of doctors, maybe it would cause young students to go into medicine and do the world some good. If they don’t want to, they shouldn’t have to do so, but banning all from doing so? Forcing your beliefs on others? That’s crap. Not everyone is afraid of dead tissue… death is part of life. Perhaps it would be better to simply burn the three out of ten animals that are euthanized, rather than have students learn something positive about life…. from death? Such reactions are childish and narrow minded, plain and simple. Get over it.

    • I think your level of reading comprehension is what is childish–that and your tendency for name-calling without cause. Obviously you have some stake in this argument that you are not revealing. And obviously you have not read the many informative links connected to my post. One of the findings reported therein is that dissections are a factor in so many high school students turning away from the sciences as they progress in their studies, not the other way around. I imagine that having them dissect humans would have even more of an effect. Understanding the relative maturity of different demographics of students is not childish–it is itself a sign of maturity.

      Another bit of information that you are ignoring is that there is little to no guarantee that a high school biology program gets its dissection animals from already-existing euthanasia of cats and dogs at shelters. In fact, how these animals are obtained is highly questionable.

      And one might even ask why it is that cats are acceptable for high school dissections when dogs are not. In other words, there are many different layers to the “forcing” of beliefs on people. I don’t see how you can interpret my post as forcing my beliefs on anyone.

      Nor do I see what evidence you have that I am afraid of death or of “dead tissue.” I confront mortality every day with my own health issues, and I have stayed with every pet I’ve had if it had to be euthanized. I have never turned my back on this process. So don’t go name-calling just because you don’t agree with my stance on high school dissections.

  5. Being a high school student myself and currently dissecting a cat in my human anatomy and physiology class at a prestigious high school, I believe that it is highly beneficial to dissect animals. I plan on becoming a surgeon and dissecting is a very helpful way of affirming my decision. Viewing the internal organs of the cat clearly demonstrates exactly what we have learned in class. Believe it or not, actually dissecting the cat is nothing at all like viewing pictures on a computer. Some of my hardest classwork has been identifying various body parts on a computer, while actually handling the organs and body parts in my hands gives a very hands-on view that really helps the learning process.

    Secondly, these cats are much better off in the lab than where they were when they were alive. When they were alive, they were running on the streets of Mexico, where they often would starve to death. Most of our cats are so skinny that palpating the ribs and xiphoid process is the easiest part of the whole dissection. Also, we often find parasitic worms in their stomachs, another indication that life was not easy for these cats. We are putting them out of their misery, while also controlling the cat population in a respectful manner.

    I do agree, however, that dissecting should be optional. There is no point in forcing someone to dissect an animal when it will clearly disturb them. It is also a waste of time, effort, money, and animals to force dissection upon unwilling students. When you sign up for a human anatomy and physiology class (which at most high schools is a science elective, meaning it is an extra science class that you can opt to take), you know exactly what you are getting into. You know that the last 6 weeks of the school year will be devoted to extensive dissecting of cats, and if you are not prepared for this, you can easily back out. For those of us who are interested in pursuing a career in medicine, biology, or other science fields, these dissections are extremely beneficial. I have known people who wanted to work in medicine, but after dissecting animals, figured out that they did not have the stomach for it. I believe it is better to figure this out in high school than in college after you have already chosen your major and paid for your classes.

    I do respect your opinion, and take it into account in my reply. You have good points and I understand where you are coming from. But at the same time, you might want to talk to students in both high school and college who are interested in science careers, specifically medicine, before posting a rather biased essay.

    • Hi, Rachel,

      Thanks for your comments and engagement with the issue of dissection. It is good for me to be reminded that there are exceptional high school students who may indeed be ready for the practice and to hear from someone who feels that she will benefit from it in pursuit of her education. However, I don’t feel that you read my blog post very carefully, and your accusation of bias seems uncalled for.

      In its most basic definition, “bias” means an inclination or tendency. That much is true: I have long been an advocate for kinder treatment of animals and more consideration of what our many habits, practices, and beliefs mean to the lives animals lead (or don’t lead for long). However, an accusation of bias also implies that I have somehow been irrational or unfair in my assessment, whereas I think I have both gathered a good bit of evidence and have given a rather balanced view. Please note that I stated that I believe dissection is an important and legitimate practice under the right circumstances. What I object to is the requirement that most or all students perform them.

      Since you are a student at an “elite” high school, I assume that you have a smaller teacher-student ratio at your school that allows your biology teacher to more fully discuss the context and reasons for the practice of dissection. Perhaps also you have parents that are involved in your education and can provide additional support should you find it hard to take emotionally. It also seems that your school does allow alternative practices or that you agree that it should. I think that you and I probably agree more than we disagree.

      But I would also encourage you to use some of those critical thinking skills that surely you are being taught at an “elite” school. Obviously, you have been given an account of the worthless and painful life of the cats that you are dissecting. Perhaps your teacher has also been given that account by the company from which these animals are procured. Perhaps to a certain extent, this story is even true. But you repeat this story as though you have first-hand knowledge, and I would encourage you to be skeptical. Perhaps it would be good for you and your class to investigate procurement methods further and to ask questions about it. Some research has shown that procurement companies round up cats from the streets of Mexico without any attention to whether an individual cat is a loved pet or a starving stray (see the link I included above). And, when we euthanize millions of cats in U.S.A. shelters every year, why are dissection cats procured from Mexico? Might this be because in Mexico procurement companies do not need to demonstrate humane methods of obtaining and killing these cats? Do these procurement companies use any of their profits to help with kinder methods to reduce the cat overpopulation problem in Mexico by donating money to organizations that encourage spaying and neutering? Or do they simply view these animals as a profitable crop that they are glad renews itself for their use? Are the cats you dissect so skinny because they were starving on the streets or were they starved in cages before being killed? And how were they killed? (There are many methods used, and some are kinder than others. For instance, if a cat is killed with a simple injection into its abdomen, it suffers far more than the technique used to euthanize a sick pet, with a more tricky and time-consuming injection into a vein.)

      If you compare my “bias,” which is based simply on my love of cats and other animals and a concern for their general welfare, with the “bias” of the procurement companies, whose main interest is to make money, whose story is likely to have more bias?

      I was also very interested in what you had to say about your career plans and how students should know whether or not they are cut out for medical and other science-based careers before they pay for courses at college. There has been a shift since I was your age–high school and college students are under a great deal of pressure now to plot a professional path in life and move forward along it at a steady pace. But it seems to me a sad thing for 16- and 17-year-olds to already have been deemed one thing or another. Yes, there are a few rare people who have a burning desire to do one thing from a young age. Maybe you fall into that category and you will indeed end up a surgeon and be happy with that. But just because some of your friends didn’t feel prepared for dissection at this young age doesn’t mean that they might not at a later time. One of the studies I cited in my original post found that for most high school students dissection discouraged them perhaps more than it should at such a young age from pursuing medical or science careers.

      There’s not an easy answer to this. I’m glad at your school, students are given plenty of warning and can opt out of the dissection lab. They can always try it later if they discover an interest in science. Perhaps electives or special programs for students who are already committed to medical or science careers is the way to go. It is healthy for most students to think of high school and the first year or two of college as an exploratory time. High school and college should both be considered more than vocational training.

      Also, what my post meant to address is the wide array of ordinary high school students who are pressed into dissections when they may not be ready or when this training is not related in any way to where they may end up in life. For those students, it seems to me that there are better ways to interest them in the life around us and to give them a sense of responsibility for that living world.

      In some ways this is a matter of emphasis. One thing that concerns me about the emphasis on dissection in high school biology is that so many other options for teaching students about biology may get the short shrift. Call me a pragmatist, but when weeks are spent on dissection, I wonder whether there’s any time spent discussing the ecological fate of our planet, whether there’s any time exposing students to living things in the field. And I certainly wonder why biology teachers find themselves apologists for companies that procure dead cats without taking students to the SPCA and showing them the true living problems of pet overpopulation. Why such an emphasis on the dead when biology itself is all about the study of life?

      No doubt there will be differences of opinion about this for a long time. I don’t think that you and I even disagree all that much. I think you’re right to remind me of the circumstances in which dissection can be useful–I never denied that it is so. I hope I have also inspired you to think more critically about the precise timing and the hidden aspects of the practice.

      Take care.

      • Thanks so much for taking the time to reply, this brings up some very good points. I apologize for possibly skipping over or misunderstanding some parts of your post – I was in a rush so I may have skimmed some. I will definitely be bringing up some of these points with my teacher, especially the method of euthanization used. Thankfully, we know that our cats were given the heart-stopping injection through the neck, which I hope made their death less painful than the injection in the stomach. I also am a cat lover (I will without a doubt be the “crazy cat lady” with 547 cats), and I appreciate the concern that you and others are able to display. Thanks again!

      • Hi, Rachel,

        I’m glad to hear that your biology teacher has been open to discussing the details with your class. That’s so important.

        Also, I just happened to read about something interesting in Wired magazine this weekend (May 2012 issue). I couldn’t find a version online, but I did find this article about the same thing, which is a prototype that a veterinarian has been working on that would make training less hazardous for animals ( Maybe there will be a future in this kind of thing for high schools as well.

        I just still think that it makes sense to start with living things and “doing no harm,” even if at some few points the use of cadavers and dissections is necessary.

        And we need to work on the pet overpopulation problem in more humane ways.

        Anyway, all my best to you with your education… and your future as a cat lady!


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