Julie Knipe Brown, MiamiHerald.com
The sight of a dissected frog is a familiar one to generations of high-schoolers who donned gloves and grimaced their way through biology class by scrutinizing the inner workings of an amphibian.
But for many of today's classroom scientists, it goes beyond slicing open frogs and insects. Some classrooms are carving up dead fetal pigs, sharks, rats and cats.
Advocates say there is no substitute for learning about anatomy than hands-on experience, and many states, including Florida, allow students to opt out if they are uncomfortable with animal dissection.
Nevertheless, critics, including educators and animal rights activists, say dissecting animals -- which goes back to the 1400s -- is archaic. They say more humane, cost-effective and high-tech alternatives are just as educational.
The debate has been rekindled with the June 13 arrest of a former Miami Palmetto High student accused of slaughtering 19 cats across South Miami-Dade. Tyler Weinman, 18, who faces multiple counts of animal cruelty, dissected cats last year as part of his anatomy class.
While there is no evidence that dissecting cats -- or any animal -- will lead a student to violence, the crime has raised questions about the necessity of asking students to pick apart specimens that resemble many of their family pets.
For more than two decades, the Miami-Dade School District has offered advanced classes for students at about 40 high schools that have hands-on anatomy instruction involving dead cats and other mammals. The Palm Beach School District also uses animals, as well as some private schools and universities.
Milagros Fornell, Miami-Dade's associate superintendent for curriculum and instruction, said that cat dissection is an elective that is taught in the fourth or fifth year of science. The instruction is essential for those who want to go on to medical or veterinary medicine, he said.
''It's one thing to show you physically what an animal looks like, but I don't think you want to take your animal to a veterinarian that doesn't know what the inside of an animal looks like,'' he said.
The Broward County School District, however, phased out cat dissections a decade ago, according to J.P. Keener, the district's supervisor of science education.
''We ran into problems years ago with kids that had an emotional connection to a family pet so we long since eliminated it,'' he said.
Although at advanced levels the district still conducts dissections on frogs and fetal pigs, Broward science teachers have found success with computerized three-dimensional virtual dissections, he said.
Indeed, high-tech science is growing, with online companies offering an array of videos and computer programs that teach everything from animal to human anatomy. Some of them allow students to dissect animals online using computerized tools.
Steve Richter, executive vice president of Nasco, a worldwide catalog and Internet-based company that has sold preserved specimens for over 60 years, said he understands the emotion that dissection evokes among animal lovers.
''But the real issue is what is being taught and how the animals are being used in the classroom,'' he said. "Mostly, they are used at higher grade levels, in nursing schools and other higher education facilities.''
Animal activists, such as PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), argue that non-animal learning methods, such as clay modeling and plasticized specimens, are better learning tools.
In the wake of the Weinman case, PETA has called upon Miami Palmetto High to discontinue animal dissections. And last week, the organization launched a new online resource center for educators that includes video demonstrations of virtual dissection technology.
''There is no research that shows using real cats is better than non-animal learning methods,'' said Justin Goodman, a PETA researcher.
But educators say the computerized experience just doesn't engage or educate students the way a real-life dissection does.
Bruce Grayson, professor of biology at the University of Miami, says one reason instructors use cats to teach anatomy is that their organs are more humanlike and developed than other animals.
''People are always worried about where they come from,'' Grayson said. "Do you know how many thousands of cats are euthanized in this country? If students can learn from them, and as long as they are properly obtained and disposed of, and as long as students use them in a responsible manner, then they are a useful teaching tool.''
Other educators, while acknowledging the practice has benefits, say it's time to explore alternatives.
''The primary goal for a teacher is to excite their students and dissection is one way to get students involved,'' said Lynette A. Hart, a professor at the veterinary school at the University of California-Davis.
But, she added: Dissecting animals "is not a method of learning that's practical and appropriate for school children.''
Hart, co-author of Why Dissection? Animal Use in Education, said teachers are not to blame; communities have to give them better tools.
Wendy Spielman, science manager with the Palm Beach County School District, said teachers are increasingly looking for alternatives.
''Some go the traditional route, but some are choosing to go online and do the virtual dissections, to use technology to learn about anatomy,'' she said.
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