Animal Use in Education

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History of Vivisection and Dissection

The historical use of animals for teaching and experimentation is deeply rooted in the study of anatomy and physiology. Though studied for centuries in various cultures, the fields of anatomy and experimental physiology began to progress around 300 B.C. Scientific studies involving the vivisection and dissection of animals included those conducted by notable scientists such as Aristotle, Galen, and Vesalius32. If the law permitted, human cadavers were also dissected, but the use of animals in vivisection and dissection was generally less mired in ethical or religious concerns. Like today, animals were dissected not only to learn more about them, but also as surrogates for humans33.

While Greek law prohibited the dissection of human bodies, physician and medical researcher Galen performed countless animal dissections and vivisections (circa 168 A.D.) and claimed that he dissected animals almost every day of his career—not only to enhance his surgical skills but also to learn more about the human body34. Though his contributions to medicine are widely celebrated, in some instances, Galen’s vivisection and dissection of animals, which included dogs, pigs, and macaques, to understand and describe the human body and its functions led to centuries of misunderstandings about human anatomy and physiology. For example, Galen’s description of the uterus was based on dogs; the position of the kidneys was based on pigs; and his understanding of the brain was based on cows or goats35.

Though animal and human dissections were used to educate medical students, artists such as Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, who wanted to learn to illustrate their subjects with better accuracy, also conducted dissections36. They were also performed simply to illustrate the contents of ancient scientific texts.

In the 1500s, Andreas Vesalius, considered to be the founder of modern human anatomy, felt strongly that dissection should be performed as a way to accurately teach students about anatomy instead of using illustrations or descriptions in books, as well as to gain new knowledge37. Vesalius appears to have set the foundation for dissection as a teaching and research tool.

Dissections were performed in theater settings with large numbers of students as the audience. Human cadavers were highly desired, which often led to grave robbing or the use of bodies of executed criminals38. As legal and ethical concerns about the use of human cadavers led to a decrease in the availability of bodies to dissect, the use of animals, who most considered to be incapable of feeling pain, became increasingly common.

In the early 1900s, the dissection of animals became more common in biology classes. Frog dissection was established in college level courses and eventually was taught in high schools39. Between 1910 and 1920, dead frogs became commercially available for use in education, and by the 1920s, frog dissection became a routine activity in many high school classrooms40,41.

Animal dissection that included crayfish, grasshoppers, mollusks, starfish, sharks, frogs, fetal pigs, and cats in high school became widespread following the Biological Sciences Curriculum Study, a federally-funded initiative in the 1960s to create science curricula for elementary and secondary school students42. Also as a result, more high schools established advanced biology courses involving dissection of cats, minks, and fetal pigs, as well as an increased use of live animals. Previously, dissection of such animals was more common in college-level comparative anatomy courses43. In 1988, it was estimated that animal dissection occurred in 75-80% of pre-college level biology classes44.

32Hart, Lynette A., Mary W. Wood, and Benjamin J. Hart. Why Dissection? Oxford, U.K.: Greenwood Press, 2008.
33Guerrini, Anita. Experimenting with Humans and Animals: From Galen to Animal Rights. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003.
34Nutton, Vivian. “Logic, Learning, and Experimental Medicine.” Science 5556(2002): 800-801.
36Hart, Lynette A., Mary W. Wood, and Benjamin J. Hart. Why Dissection? Oxford, U.K.: Greenwood Press, 2008.
38Guerrini, Anita. Experimenting with Humans and Animals: From Galen to Animal Rights. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003.
39Orlans, F. Barbara. “Debating Dissection.” The Science Teacher 55(1988):36-40.
41Kinzie, Mable B., Richard Strauss, and M. Jean Foss. “The Effects of an Interactive Dissection Simulation on the Performance and Achievement of High School Biology Students.” Journal of Research in Science Teaching 30(1993):989-1000.
42Emmons, Marvin B. “Secondary and elementary school use of live and preserved animals.” Animals in Education: Use of animals in high school biology classes and science fairs. Ed. Heather McGiffin and Nanice Brownley. Washington, D.C.: The Institute for the Study of Animal Problems. 1980. 43-46.
44Orlans, F. Barbara. “Debating Dissection.” The Science Teacher 55(1988):36-40.
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