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Cruelty in the classroom

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By Justin Goodman

Now that kids are back in school, parents everywhere are breathing a sigh of relief. The frantic search for school supplies is over, and most kids are settling in to their new routines. But don’t relax just yet, Mom and Dad: You still have some homework to do. Your assignment: Find out if cruelty is on the curriculum.

If animal dissections are included in this year’s lesson plan, the answer is “Yes.”

As early as middle school, most students are forced by their teachers to cut up intact frogs, fetal pigs and other animals. Only 15 states have passed laws or resolutions that allow students to opt out of animal dissections. But even in states where such laws exist, students who choose not to dissect can be ostracized or ridiculed by their peers and teachers. A New Jersey eighth-grader who opted out of dissection had the remains of a dead frog placed in her purse by her teacher and was ordered to carry a dead animal across campus.

Educators often ignore or are unaware of the abundant data documenting the superiority of non-animal teaching methods and commonly tell their impressionable young students that dissection is vital to a successful science education. Who are 12-year-olds to argue?

They don’t know that each of the more than 10 million animals who are killed and cut open in classrooms every year represents not only a life lost but also part of a trail of animal abuse. Some animals used for dissection are caught in the wild; others come from breeding facilities that cater to businesses that use animals in experiments. Or they are lost or abandoned animal companions who were sold by an animal shelter to a biological supply company. 

PETA investigators who went undercover at one biological supply company documented cases in which animals were removed from gas chambers and injected with formaldehyde without first being checked for vital signs—a violation of the Animal Welfare Act. The investigators’ video footage documents cats and rats struggling during injection. One rabbit, still alive after being gassed, tried to crawl out of a wheelbarrow that was full of water and dead rabbits. Employees laughed as a coworker drowned the animal. 

For both ethical and educational reasons, cutting up the organs of dead animals is not the best way to introduce students to modern scientific methods.

Nearly every published comparative study has concluded that non-animal learning tools, such as virtual dissection software, teach anatomy and complex biological processes as well as, or better than, animal dissection. Two recent peer-reviewed studies show that even something as simple as building body structures out of clay is superior to cat dissection when it comes to teaching anatomy to college students. Last year, the National Science Teachers Association amended its official position statement to approve the use of non-animal alternatives as replacements for dissection. 

Using non-animal science education tools also more accurately reflects what students will encounter if they go on to medical school. Today, nearly 95 percent of U.S. medical schools have abandoned the use of animals; instead, they use non-animal methods that rely on sophisticated tools such as human-patient simulators. 

Educators need to bring themselves up to date on the emerging areas of medical and scientific research that rightly view the use of animals as not only unethical but also antiquated. Concerned parents can take action, too, by urging their local school board to ban classroom dissections or at least give all students the option of doing a non-animal project. In this day and age, using dissection to train students for the modern scientific world is like preparing kids for calculus with an abacus.

Justin Goodman is a research associate supervisor for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) as well as an adjunct faculty member in the department of sociology and criminal justice at Marymount University in Arlington, Va. He may be reached c/o PETA at 501 Front St., Norfolk, VA 23510; http://www.PETA.org/dissection.

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Written by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals

October 2, 2009 at 8:30 pm

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