Newsletter - Animal Writes sm
19 April 2009 Issue

By Marc Bekoff, [email protected]

Opinions vary on whether it's essential to dissect or experiment on animals to learn about them. Many non-animal alternatives are readily available, but students and teachers often don't know this.

A valid alternative is one that harms no animals. Watching others work isn't necessarily acceptable.

Supporters of animal use often claim if students don't want "to get their hands wet" they shouldn't study biology.

Recently, without supporting data, the Human Anatomy and Physiology Society asserted "dissection and the manipulation of animal tissues and organs are essential elements in scientific investigation and introduce students to the excitement and challenge of future careers."

While there's no doubt animal use has played a major role in education, it's not clear it's essential. We certainly expect more from students than simple appeals to history to defend ideas.

Many biology departments, including mine (and those at local high schools), provide alternatives (computer simulations, models, videos) for students opposed to animal use. Sue Rodriguez-Pastor, a graduate student, now offers a non-dissection laboratory in general biology. We also offer courses that satisfy our animal science requirement that don't require animal use; students know in advance what's expected.

It's essential to have clearly stated policies informing students what options are available so responsible choices can be made.

So is dissection a cut above non-animal alternatives? No. There's no evidence "hands on" experience is essential. Almost 20 studies comparing the educational effectiveness of non-animal alternatives show they're often at least as good, if not better and usually less costly, for achieving intended goals ( Equal knowledge or equivalent surgical skills are acquired using alternatives.

Of 2,913 first-year biology undergraduates, exam results of 308 students who studied model rats were the same as those of 2,605 students who dissected rats. When the surgical skills of 36 third-year veterinary students who trained on soft-tissue organ models were compared to those of students who trained on dogs and cats, each group performed the same. And, in a study of 110 medical students, computer demonstrations were rated higher for learning about cardiovascular physiology than experiments using dogs.

There are numerous alternatives to cutting up live animals or using prepared specimens. Two excellent sources are NORINA (Norwegian Inventory of Audio-visuals; and Johns Hopkins University's Center for Alternatives to Animal Testing Web site (

Others include my "Encyclopedia of Animal Rights and Animal Welfare" (Greenwood , 1998) and "From Guinea Pig to Computer Mouse: Alternative Methods for a Humane Education" (European Network of Individuals and Campaigns for Humane Education, 1997; see also

Questioning how biology is taught isn't to be against science or "radical." Open, frank discussions will produce more responsible science. Decisions against using animals don't compromise sound education. Indeed, many students are making this choice ( and Johns Hopkins University's Center for Alternatives to Animal Testing Web site (

Marc Bekoff ([email protected]) teaches in the Environmental , Population and Organismic Biology Department at the University of Colorado.

March 14, 1999
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