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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: http://www.peta.org/b/thepetafiles/archive/tags/TeachKind-org/default.aspx.

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.