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"Roughly 3.2 million frogs are destroyed for dissection each year"
~~F.Barbara Orlans Ph.D

    Dissection is a common practice in many classrooms. Introduced in the 1920's to aid in the study of anatomy, biology, physiology and evolution it is over seventy years old. Dissection is the classroom counterpart to vivisection (cutting open live animals), the only difference being these animals are killed before being cut up. In both cases the animal is treated as a disposable object, creating insensitivity for the students who chose to participate.
    Participation in dissection should not be forced upon any student under any circumstances. All students have the right to decline to dissect. There are many reasons for which some students chose not to dissect; these include ethical, environmental religious and educational reasons. There are many alternatives available that can easily take the place of an animal in biology classes, models and computer simulations are the two most commonly used. Some schools have policies in place to ensure that students uncomfortable with dissection are provided with other options. There was a study conducted by McCollum in 1998 which concluded that test scores for students selecting alternative exercises were significantly higher than those of students who dissected.

If you are a student, teacher or parent who has concerns about dissection please continue on to the next page for more information and contacts.

The Current Situation

Killing animals for classroom dissection causes animal suffering, cheapens the value of life, and depletes wild animal populations, yet it remains commonplace. Concern is growing, however. Laws and policies now exist recognizing a student's right to use humane alternatives, ranging from CD-ROMs to 3-D plastic models. These laws and policies, combined with the emergence of newer, better alternatives, are placing dissection advocates increasingly on the defensive.

Numbers Used

No reliable figures exist for the numbers of animals killed for dissection in U.S. schools. Biological supply companies do not divulge complete or consistent information. A reasonable estimate is that about six million vertebrate animals are dissected yearly in U.S. high schools alone, with an additional, unknown number used in colleges and middle and elementary schools. The number of invertebrate animals dissected is probably comparable to that of vertebrates.

Kinds of Animals Used

The most commonly dissected vertebrates are frogs, fetal pigs, and cats. Others include dogfish sharks, perch, rats, pigeons, salamanders, rabbits, mice, turtles, snakes, mink, foxes, and bats. Invertebrates include crayfish, grasshoppers, earthworms, clams, sea stars, squid, sea urchins, and cockroaches. One U.S. biological supply company sells more than 170 different species of preserved animals. Some dissection exercises involve animal parts rather than whole animal bodies. Animal parts including cows' eyes, hearts, and lungs and sheep brains are sometimes obtained from slaughterhouses. Some teachers use chicken wings from the supermarket.

Sources of Animals

Most animals bound for dissection are taken from their natural habitats. Frogs, who alone make up half the vertebrates used in dissection, are captured from wetlands; dogfish sharks are targeted and ensnared in the nets of fishing trawlers; and snakes, turtles, perch, salamanders, stingrays, and others are wild-caught. Some cats are procured from animal shelters; others are supplied by animal dealers whose legal sources are breeders, owners, and shelters, but who are also known to acquire under false pretenses the animals they sell for dissection. Some species come from other industries that exploit animals: fetal pigs are removed from pregnant sows slaughtered for meat; mink, fox, and rabbit carcasses come, already skinned, from fur ranches.

Industry Methods

Secrecy shrouding the operations of biological supply companies and their suppliers makes information hard to obtain. What is known of the procurement of animals used in dissection indicates that abuse and suffering are widespread. Video footage of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals' 1990 undercover investigation of Carolina Biological Supply Company (CBSC), the nation's largest biological supplier, contains many disturbing images. Although CBSC officials had repeatedly claimed that the company handled only dead cats, the video shows live cats being roughly prodded into crowded gas chambers. It also shows rats struggling in restraining racks as they are embalmed alive and documents large, fully alive crabs being injected with deadly chemical preservative.

In 1993 the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA) investigated a Mexican biological supply company named PARMEESA. WSPA documented the drowning of thousands of cats, who were tied ten at a time into cloth sacks and submerged in large drums or in a nearby river. In 1994 two separate Mexican government raids on a Mexican chicken farm found a total of thirteen hundred dead cats in a blood-stained barn; the cats' throats had been slit. Some of these cats were people's companions, taken from neighborhood streets by collectors offering $1 per cat. All of the cats found were to have been shipped north for dissection in U.S. classrooms.

The only in-depth study of the collection of frogs for dissection was published in the life science journal BioScience in 1971. The article investigates the frog-collection practices of four major U.S. biological supply companies operating at that time. The authors describe finding live frogs kept in nylon mesh bags for up to one week during shipping, with 50 to 100 frogs crowded into each bag. The frogs suffered extremes of temperature and dryness; an estimated 15 percent were dead after shipping. As many as half the frogs kept in sorting and holding pens of 20,000 to 30,000 frogs died during the winter before being shipped to buyers. The authors concluded that nearly every step of the catching and shipping places severe stress on the frog. There is no indication that conditions for frogs have improved since the '70s.

Lack of Industry Oversight Scrutiny of the biological supply trade is minimal. Regulations drafted to enforce the U.S. Animal Welfare Act (AWA) exclude from protection all non-mammals and laboratory-bred rats and mice. Therefore, amphibians, birds, fish, and reptiles caught, housed, transported, and killed for dissection are not reported to or by the federal government. The AWA requires the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to inspect biological supply companies (categorized as "class B dealers") at least once per year. The resulting two-page animal-care inspection reports provide only a snapshot of a facility at a particular moment. Most of the reports' questions address cage construction and sanitation and few have any comments about the animals themselves, perhaps because most animals on the premises are dead. The USDA considers dead animals beyond its concern.

The HSUS has asked the USDA to require biological supply companies to report all their capture locations; methods of capture, transport, and killing; and total numbers of each species processed for all animals slated for dissection.

Student Feelings

When it is expected of them, most students dissect without open complaint. However, The HSUS has compiled ten published surveys, conducted mainly by academic researchers, showing that many or most students harbor reservations about dissecting animals. Their reasons include the belief that it is wrong to kill an animal for an education lesson, physical aversion to cutting apart an animal, and a concern for the environment.

Another major criticism of dissection is that it tends to disregard the need for teaching and learning respect and compassion for other sentient life and the need for fostering stewardship of nature. Dissection is also criticized for turning many bright, sensitive students away from promising careers in the life sciences (e.g., medicine, veterinary medicine, nursing).

As the number of students who object to classroom practices harmful to animals grows, so do conflicts.3 The toll-free dissection hotline, 1-800-922-FROG, operated by the National Anti-Vivisection Society, has received more than one hundred thousand calls since it was started by the Animal Legal Defense Fund in 1989. To address the student/teacher conflict problem, The HSUS held a daylong symposium in 1996 titled "The Dissection Controversy: Bridging the Teacher/Student Gap" (a three-videotape set from this symposium is available for loan). The HSUS also has prepared a packet of materials to help students and teachers work together to replace dissection with alternative classroom assignments.


As of June 1997, four states in the United States had dissection-choice laws: Florida (enacted 1985), California (1988), Pennsylvania (1992), and New York (1994). These laws give precollege students the option of not dissecting an animal. Instead, the students can choose another exercise not harmful to animals. Similar legislation has been introduced in Illinois, Louisiana, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Rhode Island. A law requiring schools to publish information about available alternatives to dissection was supported by The HSUS in Maryland and recently passed. A dissection-choice policy was voluntarily adopted in 1989 by the Department of Education in Maine, after the policy failed to become enacted into law. Several other school boards around the nation have independently embraced choice policies.
The majority of U.S. schools, however, have no dissection policies. Internationally, the past decade has seen some significant changes. School dissection was banned in Argentina in 1987 and in the Slovak Republic in 1995. In 1993 the Italian Parliament passed a law recognizing the right of any person to refuse to participate in animal experimentation and dissection. In May 1997 animal dissection was reduced to an optional activity in India's schools, where up to six million animals are dissected yearly.

Available Alternatives

Literally thousands of alternatives to dissection are available. Currently CD-ROMs are rapidly being added to an arsenal of conventional computer programs, with titles like The Digital Frog, DissectionWorks, and The Ultimate Human Body. Hundreds of videotapes are available; a series produced in Britain called Vertebrate Dissection Guides shows detailed dissections of the dogfish shark, the frog, the pigeon, and the rat, and an eight-tape U.S. series called Cat Anatomy Instructional Videotape Series provides an exhaustive review of the anatomy of the cat. Three-D plastic models exist for a wide range of animals, including cats, clams, frogs, grasshoppers, rats, sea stars, sharks, and even cows. There are also many highly sophisticated models and simulations of the human body. The price of one of these materials is usually higher than that of a dissection specimen (although a single CD-ROM can cost less [$39.95] than a single preserved cat [up to $58.50 for a pregnant female injected with three colors of dye]). But when one adds up the costs of hundreds of animal carcasses discarded after each use, the economics overwhelmingly favor alternatives. A cost analysis conducted by The HSUS found that a typical high school can save thousands of dollars yearly by replacing animal dissections with alternatives equipment. (The analysis is part of the student/teacher packet. Contact The HSUS's Animal Research Issues staff for a copy.)

Educational Pros and Cons

Dissection is often defended by biology teachers as the best way to teach anatomy, though published studies contradict this claim. A collection of twelve of these studies, compiled by The HSUS, shows that the academic performance of students using computer programs, 3-D models, and/or other materials is at least as good as that of students who dissect animals. Among the advantages of computer simulations are that they are repeatable, interactive, and self-paced; they can include animations and built-in quizzes; and of course, they are ethically non-controversial.

What You Can Do

As a student: To dissect or not to dissect is ultimately up to you; everyone has the right to refuse to participate in educational exercises that violate genuine ethical values. If animals will be dissected in your class, prepare your reason(s) for objecting to dissection. Present them to your teacher, preferably several weeks before the dissection starts and politely but firmly request an alternative assignment. It will help if you can provide specific suggestions for alternatives; The HSUS has more than a hundred dissection alternatives (3-D models, CD-ROMs, computer diskettes, videos, charts) available for loan. If you meet resistance, notify the school principal and the district superintendent and write a letter to your local paper. Perhaps your parents will be willing to talk to your teacher on your behalf. As a teacher: Consider discontinuing animal dissection in your classes or at least giving students the opportunity to choose alternatives. Be sure to inform students of that opportunity; you can generate a valuable ethical discussion. You might first give your class the assignment of finding out where the animals being shipped to your school are from and how they are procured; then let the class vote to decide whether the school should support the supply company by buying animals from it. Borrow dissection alternatives from The HSUS.

As a concerned individual: If students in your area are not being offered a chance to choose alternatives, draft a policy requiring this choice and present it to your school and to the local parent/teacher association (PTA). If you are a parent, join the PTA and recommend that such a policy be drafted and adopted. Point out the economic, environmental, ethical, and social problems with killing animals for dissection.

For more information on how you can help end the suffering and death of animals destined for dissection, please contact us at 301-258-3046; by fax: 301-258-3082; or by e-mail: [email protected]

1. This estimate was made by F. Barbara Orlans in In the Name of Science: Issues in Responsible Animal Experimentation (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993). The estimate is an extrapolation from the number of U.S. high schools and students and the proportion of students who dissect animals. 2. Erich L. Gibbs, George W. Nace, and Marvin B. Emmons, "The Live Frog Is Almost Dead," BioScience 21, no. 20 (1971): 1027?4. 3. Jonathan Balcombe, "Student/Teacher Conflict Regarding Animal Dissection," The American Biology Teacher 59, no. 1 (1997): 22?5. The Humane Society of the United States 2100 L Street, NW, Washington, DC 20037 202-452-1100 ? Internet: www.hsus.org ? 1997 The HSUS. All rights reserved.