Alternatives to Animal Testing, Experimentation and Dissection Articles from

Humane education: Replacing animal models in schools and universities

September 2023

The more we can show that viable, humane education alternatives exist and that students graduate with the necessary skills, the harder it will be for educators to continue the practices that result in so much suffering and death.

plastic Cow
Clinical Dissectible Model

Speciesism in education

Speciesism is something most humans are introduced to early in life. Our school systems often value certain species over others, resulting in the exclusion or mistreatment of particular animals. This can manifest in various forms, such as the use of our fellow animals in dissection, biased or incomplete information about certain animal species, and the promotion of harmful animal-related industries like factory farming.

If children are introduced to these injustices at an early age, they accept them as normal. A young person who believes the only way to understand the anatomy of a frog is to cut one open will go on to believe that using our animal kin is essential for scientific discovery.

Schools are institutions where knowledge, values, and social relations are formed. As such, recognising and addressing speciesism in education is a clear starting point to promote a more just and equitable treatment of our animal kin.

One of the ways that we can achieve this is with humane education models.

Education models that use our animal kin

There are a number of education models that use our animal kin in some way for the purpose of helping students understand various biological concepts and principles. Often the individual animals are referred to as “specimens”, language that distances the human from the individual they are about to cut open.


According to the Animal Welfare Institute, more than 12 million animals, including frogs, cats, rats, foetal pigs (unborn pigs cut out of their slaughtered mothers), fishes and a variety of invertebrates are used for dissection in the US each year. This death toll is just part of the picture, as dissection is a commonplace practice in educational establishments across the globe.

In the UK, for example, frogs are the most commonly dissected animals below university level. This is because they’re viewed as relatively easy to obtain with simple anatomy and similarities to humans in some aspects of their physiology.

In the US, the Taskforce on Amphibian Declines and Deformities highlights that the use of frogs as dissection subjects is one contributing factor to why frogs are disappearing from the world’s ponds and waterways – a disappearance that’s having a wider impact on the frogs’ habitats and the other species within them.

However, focusing on the environmental impact of dissection glosses over the suffering inflicted in the name of education.

Frogs are caught and transported in their thousands for dissection purposes. During transport, they may be subjected to poor living conditions, overcrowding, and inadequate nutrition and care. The capture and transportation process itself can be stressful for the frogs and may cause injuries, illness and death.

When the frogs are slaughtered prior to dissection, it’s done using methods such as immersion in a chemical solution or freezing. These methods can cause extreme discomfort and pain.

And it’s not only frogs who suffer.

The Humane Society reports that “investigators have discovered suppliers drowning cats in burlap sacks, injecting rats with embalming fluid, and keeping frogs for weeks without food”, all for the purpose of dissection.

When humans know an animal is destined to be cut apart in a classroom, it seems it’s easier to disconnect from their suffering and, indeed, contribute to it.

Dissection at degree level

Currently, many degree programmes – particularly those concerning biology, human medicine or veterinary medicine – still include compulsory and harmful animal use.

InterNICHE, an organisation dedicated to promoting humane education, highlights that “some students are forced to change discipline or drop out of university altogether because courses have been designed with no facility to choose educationally valid alternatives [to dissection].

Others find it easier to abandon criticism, losing a healthy scientific attitude and allowing the subjugation of their ethics. This perpetuates the problem and desensitises students to the important values of personal responsibility and respect for life. And the professions lose the very people who are keen to keep ethics within science”.

Fortunately, there are some university programmes – even in the categories highlighted above – that enable students to complete their degrees without compromising their conscience or harming other animals.

New technologies are emerging to enable this (we talk about this more further down the page). Some universities in the UK, for example, are now using Anatomage table vet medical virtual dissection tables in their teaching.

The fact that students successfully graduate from degree programmes that don’t use traditional animal consumptive methods shows that killing our fellow animals for education is unnecessary.


Vivisection is the practice of performing experiments on live animals, typically for medical or scientific research purposes.

While vivisection is uncommon in schools, it is a mainstay of many college and university courses around the world, as we’ve touched on in other blogs about animal experimentation.

Many people continue to support vivisection for scientific purposes, believing that it is essential to good practice. However, opposition is growing, as people begin to recognise that this belief comes from years of conditioning rather than solid evidence.

As a result, we’re seeing an increase in alternatives to vivisection, such as computer software, AI, cell cultures and stem cell research, human tissue testing, and safe trials for human volunteers.

Live animals

Some classrooms or educational programs keep live animals, such as reptiles, fishes, or mammals, for students to observe and study. These animals can be used to teach students about animal behaviour, life cycles, and the impact of different environmental factors.

However, a growing number of people are questioning the ethics of confining animals in order to study their behaviour.

When an individual animal is kept in a controlled environment that is not their natural habitat, observers are unlikely to witness free-living behaviour. Also, it’s next to impossible to keep a sample size or diversity of the species in a classroom, which may invalidate any conclusions that are reached from observations.

Class “pets” (often found in classrooms for younger children) such as hamsters, guinea pigs or rabbits typically live in small, unsuitable enclosures in loud, stressful environments. They will usually need to be transported to and from school for weekends and school holidays and may be sent to different homes each time for this purpose. Although the class pet is used to teach children about caring for other animals, it’s a practice that most likely causes the individual animal a great deal of distress.

Why we need humane education

Humane education emphasises the interconnectedness of all life and the intrinsic value of nature and all animals, as well as social justice concerns. It understands that, if we treat other animals as scientific tools to be used and discarded, this can create disregard and disrespect for any life.

These days, more and more people are recognising that using educational models that harm our animal kin is flawed and unconscionable, not least because it’s a practice that results in the suffering and death of millions of individual animals every year.

Activities such as dissection remove vast numbers of animals from their ecosystems, creating imbalance within habitats that are already under threat, and contributing to climate change.

Even for those who take a more speciesist perspective, it’s clear that many children and young people find dissection deeply distressing or traumatic, and it may, in fact, turn them away from the sciences as a result.

Indeed, many students say that they didn’t learn anything from animal practical work, they felt pressured into it or they just wanted to get it over with if they felt unable to object. This makes for a poor learning environment.

From a purely financial perspective, using our animal kin in education is expensive. Once an animal has been dissected, they need to be replaced; this includes costs for capturing, housing, feeding, transporting, killing and preserving millions of individuals.

Educators and institutions want teaching models that can be used time and again to save money. While computer software or models may require a higher initial outlay, they enable educators to save money long-term.

Humane education – alternatives to the current teaching models that use our animal kin

Some of the humane education models currently available include:

Dissectible Models

These are models of animals, such as frogs or pigs, that can be disassembled to reveal their internal anatomy – and reassembled too. These models are used to teach students about the structure and function of different organs and systems within an animal.

Plastic Models

These are static models of various species of animals, typically made of plastic, that are used to show the external anatomy of an animal. These models can also be used to demonstrate the relative size and shape of different animals.

At degree level, students can use mannequins (also known as “phantoms”); these are life-like representations of animals or humans, designed for clinical skills training. Within veterinary medicine, there are mannequins that facilitate training in handling, blood sampling, intubation, CPR techniques, or even catheterisation.

Virtual Models and computer simulations

With advances in technology, virtual animal models have become more widely used in education. These can range from simple animations to interactive simulations with 3D and tactile facilities that allow students to explore the anatomy and physiology of different animals in a virtual setting.

One of the fantastic features of these virtual models is that they can often be customised to match the level of complexity desired or to reflect different learning objectives. For example, computer simulations can be easily magnified or reduced, muscles activated, nerves removed, organs made see-through, and so much more.

Computer simulations include virtual dissection software that allows students to watch or perform virtual dissections. This provides students with a similar learning experience to actual dissection, without the need for live animals.

Hands-on activities

Some educators use hands-on activities, such as constructing models or creating diagrams, to help students understand the anatomy and physiology of different organisms. This can be a fun and engaging way for students to learn, while avoiding the use of animals.

Film and video

Film and video can provide a quality visual alternative to dissections or studying live animals in captivity. Many dissections have been documented on film by experienced scientists and include such detailed explanations that they impart more information than a student could learn from performing a dissection in a class at the same time as many others.

Student self-experimentation

There are some things that students would be best to learn from a living body. Modern technology means that students are able to track physiological or biochemical changes in their own bodies by using self-experimentation apparatus linked to computer software.

In vitro labs

It is become increasingly possible to grow human and other animal cells or plant cells in a laboratory. The hope is that we will see “in vitro” (meaning “in glass”) models being used more widely in universities and to inform teaching in schools.

Clinical practice

For people who do need in-depth knowledge of the anatomy of specific animals (for example, those studying veterinary medicine), clinical practice offers a humane alternative to models such as dissection. Students can learn from real-life case studies and observations, as well as perform examinations and surgeries under the tutelage of experienced professionals.

One of the benefits of clinical practice is that it encourages students to truly connect with the individual animal in front of them, from diagnosis and treatment to post-operative care and recovery. This is a process that should engender an appreciation and respect for life, rather than turning our animal kin into objects or tools.

This is a valid concern. Studies have found that trainee vets can become “tough-minded” about their patients during their education. In one study, for example, trainee vets showed that they perceived dogs, cats and cows to have lower sentience by the end of their studies than what they perceived before their training began. The soon-to-qualify vets also downplayed their patients’ sensations of hunger and pain, and the emotions of fear and boredom.

In part, this is attributed to learning activities such as vivisection and dissection, which require the student to stay emotionally detached from the “specimen”.

Challenging entrenched attitudes to practices in education that harm animals

There are some educators who are resistant to human education alternatives because they believe that traditional animal consumptive methods are the only way to effectively teach specific topics – a message they have heard time and again during childhood and beyond.

The evidence challenges this.

According to InterNICHE, “the evidence is that the students and trainees using alternatives learn equally as well, or better, than those using animals”.

One study published in the Journal of Veterinary Medical Education found that students who used virtual dissection software performed as well as or better than students who used traditional animal dissection methods in terms of both factual knowledge and conceptual understanding. Similarly, another study published in the journal Advances in Physiology Education found that students who used a computer simulation to learn physiology concepts performed as well as or better than students who used animal experimentation.

In part, this is because alternatives are often developed to improve teaching quality, better meet teaching objectives, increase student engagement, remove student-teacher conflict and stress, and prioritise innovation.

Perhaps unfairly, it’s students who face the burden of driving change. This can be hard when they may be coerced into acting against their conscience or forced to drop out of their programme of study if the institution insists that dissection, for example, is mandatory.

InterNICHE gives the following pointers to anyone who might be faced with these issues in school, college or university:

  1. Find out the exact situation in advance – Are our animal kin used in some way in the course you want to take? Is there a policy of choice where you can opt out of these sessions? Are alternatives provided? If so, what?
  2. Decide where you stand on this issue and educate yourself as much as possible so you can defend your position.
  3. Reach out to other students who feel the same way – there is strength in numbers.
  4. Approach your teacher – Explain that you want to learn the course material, but not in a way that hurts other animals.
  5. Research more information – Find courses and institutions that use humane education models and learn what you can about how they achieve this.
  6. Submit your case for replacing the animal practical with full details of suitable alternatives.
  7. Use pressure such as making formal applications to university review committees or appealing to relevant nationwide bodies, as well as launching petitions or emailing decision-makers.
  8. Consider legal action – You may be able to show that your learning and opportunities are being compromised by the use of practices that harm other animals because they are in direct conflict with your ethical, cultural or religious beliefs; this isn’t always successful, but some students have won their case.

The more we can show that viable, humane education alternatives exist and that students graduate with the necessary skills, the harder it will be for educators to continue the practices that result in so much suffering and death.

Science doesn’t exist in an ethical vacuum. When students learn that life is disposable, it’s possible to justify unconscionable acts, which has dire consequences for society and, indeed, the planet. Humane education is about setting students on a better path.

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