Just as people are not born Rolling Stones fans, bus drivers or wine aficionados, they don’t come into the world as animal experimenters. We don’t raise our hands in the first grade and profess that we want to be scientists who inject cancer into furry little mice, decapitate them with scissors and then cut out and examine their organs when we grow up. I’m pretty sure that if a 7-year-old said this in class, he or she would be sent to the school psychologist.
As children, we have a tremendous
affinity for animals. We learn the alphabet by reciting the names of
animals—“A” is for ant; “E” is for elephant. We love hearing
stories and watching TV shows about horses and dogs. We want to dress
like animals for Halloween. And we want to share our homes with them.
We see them not as resources to be exploited but as fellow living beings.
But our deep-seated fondness
for animals is eventually eroded. An indifference toward the plight
of animals gradually develops during years of socialization in a society
in which human interests—even trivial and frivolous ones—seem to
trump the most vital of animals’ interests. We’re taught that other
animals’ flesh is “food,” that animals’ hair and skin is
“clothing” and that watching wild animals who are confined to cages
qualifies as “entertainment.” As a result, most people don’t think
twice about destroying an animal’s life to fulfill some fleeting craving
for a “chicken sandwich” or taking their freedom, interrupting their
social bonds and endangering their health for an afternoon of “fun” at the
Yet despite our insensitivity to the most common forms of animal exploitation, there are still abuses that give us pause. Most people who read about experimenters who spend their days burning pigs with blowtorches, drilling holes into monkeys’ skulls, poisoning mice or paralyzing cats immediately think, “What kind of a person could do that?”
The answer, I suggest, is that any one of us could.
The view that it is acceptable to use animals as disposable laboratory tools is ingrained in us early on. As early as middle school, most students are forced by their teachers to cut up intact animals—usually earthworms, frogs or fetal pigs. Only 15 states have passed laws or resolutions that allow students to opt out of animal dissections. And even in states where these laws have been passed, students who choose not to dissect are sometimes ostracized or retaliated against by their peers and educators. A New Jersey student who opted out of dissection had the remains of a dead frog placed in her purse by her teacher and, in a teacher-initiated prank, was ordered to carry a dead animal across campus. Compassionate students are often shamed, and some feel pressured to violate their ethical principles.
Instructors commonly preface
dissection exercises by telling their impressionable students that animal
dissection is vital to a successful science education. Teachers
instruct their students that animals are killed for the
“greater good” and that the students should
“respect” the animals they are about to mutilate. This introduces
them to the idea that we are not morally culpable for harming animals
if it can benefit us in some way. And who are 12-year-olds to argue?
They don’t know about the terrible things that happen to animals when
they are procured for dissection or that there are abundant data documenting the superiority of
modern non-animal methods for teaching biology
(like interactive computer
programs and more
kinesthetic methods like clay
The students are also likely unaware that non-animal replacements for
dissection are endorsed by organizations such as the National Science
and that today at 95%
of medical schools future
physicians are being trained without the use of animals.
So, this indoctrination of students continues on down the line. The prevailing culture among those involved in science and medical education encourages students to deny responsibility for harming animals, to view animals in laboratories as qualitatively different from those who live outside of laboratories and to create emotional distance between themselves and the animals they harm.
So after this middle-school,
high-school, undergraduate and graduate-school indoctrination, it’s
no surprise that some students are so desensitized to the suffering
of animals and so invested in the idea of using animals as laboratory
tools that they choose to pursue animal
as a career. We shouldn’t be shocked that these professional animal
experimenters, when challenged about the ethics of their enterprise,
claim that the animals who are killed in their laboratories are treated
with “respect,” even though any reasonable definition of
“respect” is incompatible with caging and killing animals in laboratories.
Animal dissection is not the benign classroom
exercise that many
believe it to be. It has profound implications for the
more than 10 million animals who are killed and dismembered -- and for
the hundreds of millions of animals who will continue to be brought
into this world to suffer in laboratories because we raise students
to view and treat them as scientific instruments.
Educators should be acutely aware that their role in students’ lives extends far beyond the classroom experience. If we don’t want children to become the kind of insensitive adults whose callousness toward animals shakes us to our very core, then we must teach them that the Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” should apply to all the Earth’s inhabitants—including those who are smaller, furrier and slimier than we are.
For more information on this topic and resources for educators, visit www.peta.org/dissection