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Animal Dissection: Cutting Kids’ Heartstrings

Justin Goodman

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 circus.   

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.  


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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 modeling).  The students are also likely unaware that non-animal replacements for dissection are endorsed by organizations such as the National Science Teachers Association 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 experimentation 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 

Justin Goodman is a Research Associate Supervisor in the Laboratory Investigations Department at the non-profit animal advocacy group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) where he works on campaigns to replace the use of animals in education with humane, modern learning methods.  He holds a Masters degree in Sociology from the University of Connecticut and is an adjunct faculty member in the Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice at Marymount University in Arlington, VA.

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