“We are on our way to becoming a nation of wimps. It’s just a frog, for crying out loud.” (Virginia State Senator Richard Saslaw, 2004)
It has been said that smell is the sense most correlated with memory. For me, formaldehyde brings me back to Mr. Fiero’s 10th grade biology class. It was there, in his laboratory classroom, that my partner and I dissected a fetal pig. What I remember most from the experience is how much I didn’t want to do it, an option, sadly, not available in 1980.
Mr. Fiero kept a boa constrictor in a glass cage and would occasionally feed him live rodents as part of our education (although he did graciously allow us to look away with impunity). This “lifecycle moment” did not appear to upset too many of my classmates, but when Shadow, the hobbled domestic rabbit, disappeared one weekend as the giant snake’s latest meal (the bulge was immense), a palpable sadness pervaded the classroom. Looking back, this illustrates our uneven morality on animals. The prey mice were entertainment for many of my friends. The pet rabbit, accorded favored status, was mourned upon his untimely demise. As for the dissection, I remember having some nebulous notion of an unfortunate porcine miscarriage; I didn’t consciously associate our subject with a deliberate death.
Dissection has been a part of biology class since the 1920′s, but in 1987, a brave 15-year-old Californian named Jennifer Graham refused to dissect an animal and sued her school district. She argued for a comparable academic option. A year later, California would grant that right to all high school students (nine other states, including NY, have followed). Today, we have sophisticated models and, better yet, computer programs capable of detailed virtual dissections.
Pathologist Dr. Nancy Harrison: “As a doctor who performs autopsies, I can assure students that computer images of well-preserved tissues look more like the “real thing” than the squishy gray organs of a formalin-fixed specimen.”
Biologist Dr. Jonathan Balcombe: “Studies show that nonanimal methods teach concepts in biology and anatomy just as well or better than animal dissection.”
Classroom dissection is big business, and Carolina Biological is the industry leader. Its website, complete with shopping cart, offers a wide variety of products, including skinned cats. To be fair, they also sell virtual kits, but since animals used for dissection must be replaced each term, Carolina much prefers the “flesh” option. The company is also deliberately inexact about its sources: “…some from cultures, some from natural or managed habitats where seasonal collections are made, and many from the food industry [fetal pigs and cow eyes extracted at the slaughterhouse].”
The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine writes: “An investigation of Carolina Biological Supply Company (CBSC)…found cats arriving in crowded cages, being poked with metal hooks, and finally being sent into gas chambers (some giving birth or making sounds after the gassing, indicating they were not yet dead). In 1991, the U.S. Department of Agriculture charged the CBSC with 10 violations of the Animal Welfare Act, including one charge of embalming cats who were still alive. When they are 'prepared' for dissection, frogs are usually dropped in a water-and-alcohol solution, which can take up to 20 minutes to cause death.”
In the end, the irony is patent: Some still insist on teaching biology, the study of life, through destruction of life. We are hardly as enlightened as we think.