The use of animals in primary and secondary education

The use of animals in primary and secondary education

The vast majority of animals used in the field of education are used for dissections. There is not data available for every country, but in the United States, it has been estimated that nearly six million vertebrates are used for this purpose each year, of which half are frogs. The use of frogs for dissection has been common for decades in biology classes in secondary education. However, many other types of nonhuman animals are dissected, including pig fetuses from the meat industry and even fox and mink corpses from the fur industry. Also, many different species of invertebrates are used, such as grasshoppers and earthworms.

Although dissections are common in a few countries, including the United States, in many others they are quite uncommon, as in the European Union.

Sometimes animal parts such as organs are used for experiments instead of whole bodies. Parts commonly used include hearts, eyes, lungs and brains (especially from pigs, cows, chickens and sheeps). They are often dissected in order to see their internal structure.

Another practice consists of incubating eggs until chicks hatch from them in order to observe the process. The babies are normally killed once the experiment ends, shortly after coming into existence. Sometimes students are invited to take these animals home, but this is unusual. Even if they are taken home by a student, they may be abandoned or discarded soon afterwards, meaning they will face certain death and they will suffer a great deal.

In other cases, animals are used as “pets” for the class, normally kept in cages and cared for collectively by the class. These animals live in confined spaces they cannot get out of. Social animals often have no contact with other animals. They may experience stress and fear from being constantly surrounded by a large number of children making a lot of noise. In many cases they are not properly cared for. As a result, their lives are usually short.1

In addition to the harm caused to the animals used in classrooms, there are other ways these practices affect animals.

Supporters of dissection in classrooms claim that “live demonstrations and experiments involving animals in pre-college education are valuable ways to excite children about science”.2 However, this may also deter a lot of students who refuse to harm animals from majoring in science.3

As a result, people with more concern for animals are discouraged from working in fields in which animal dissection and experimentation are common, which slows down the development of animal-friendly paradigms in these disciplines. This is especially true for women, a greater percentage of whom reject practices that use animals.

Furthermore, teachers can have a tremendous influence on the attitudes of students. If they convey the idea that those who oppose animal practices don’t have the right priorities, their students may be less likely to take animals into account in the future. In fact, even if teachers do not comment on their own practices, they still spread this idea, because the students see animals treated as mere things used by humans at will.

Teachers who support dissection often defend the practice by arguing that learning without real animals is not the same. They claim that students learn better when they can observe the details in a dissection, see the dissected animals from all different angles, and explore different areas of the animal’s body without damaging the structure. These claims are backed by the companies that sell animals for dissection and as laboratory tools in other areas.

Yet throughout the world there are countries where it’s very unusual to use animal dissection as a learning tool. Many countries that have large education budgets and are known for the quality of their student training (like Scandinavian countries) do not use animals in their education.

However, the heart of the matter lies in whether it is acceptable to use animals for this purpose. It is never considered acceptable to use humans in order to study human anatomy and physiology even though it is generally acknowledged that this would be the best way to do it. If we do not maintain a speciesist position, we cannot hold the view that it is unacceptable to use humans yet acceptable to use nonhuman animals in this way.

Sometimes the opposition of those who do not want animals to be used for research or training is called a “sentimental reaction.” Using such an argument shows that the defense of this practice can be maintained only by accepting a disregard for the interests of animals and a speciesist position, since no one speaks of “sentimentality” at the rejection of practices that mean certain death or the torture of human beings.

Where do the animals used in education come from?

It is very common for the animals used in classrooms to be captured in the wild, though they can also be bought from breeders. There are companies that are dedicated specifically to the mass breeding and raising of animals for this purpose, to capturing them, to acquiring them from smaller dealers, to purchasing or collecting unwanted animals, and to distributing them. Some examples of such companies are CBSC, Fisher Scientific and Nasco.

Animals who are captured suffer terribly before they are killed. Frogs, for example, are often stacked by the dozen in sacks where they can remain for more than a week without food, only being hydrated with water that is thrown in from time to time. In many cases the frogs suffer heat stroke, which if it doesn’t kill them will harm them significantly.

Many animals who do not die in this way or during capture may be killed by means of chemicals or alcohol, which can cause up to 20 minutes of suffering before death.

This includes not only frogs but many other animals as well.

Sometimes educational institutions themselves breed animals in vivariums or animal houses. Sometimes so many are bred and raised that most are ultimately not used in the experiments. The animals who are considered “surplus” are killed.

Cats and dogs may be obtained from kennels. In certain places (including areas in the United Sates), public institutions or organizations that receive public assistance have a legal obligation to provide animals to laboratories and other institutions that want to use animals as lab tools.

Finally, some animals’ bodies are obtained from farms or slaughterhouses after they are killed for their flesh and/or skin. Pig fetuses are ripped from the wombs of pregnant sows after their slaughter.

However, even if as in these cases the animals are not killed solely for the purpose of educational or laboratory uses, but by other forms of animal exploitation such as animal agriculture, the fact is that by using their bodies, one is supporting the exploitation of these animals.

The same is true when it comes to obtaining animal parts such as cow eyes, sheep brains or pig hearts. They can be purchased at a butcher shop, supermarkets or directly from slaughterhouses. Buying animal parts gives money to an animal exploitation industry, and drives the continued exploitation of animals.

The progression of conscientious objection

Conscientious objection consists of not wanting to carry out a certain practice for ethical reasons. This is increasingly common in places where work experience with animals is required.4

There are still teachers who see the practice of conscientious objection as a challenge to their authority. This need not be the case at all, but such a belief may predispose these teachers against conscientious objection.5 They may show their disapproval by calling attention to the students who refuse to do dissections. Even if there is a right to object and formal sanctions are not imposed on the student, teachers can still punish students by ridiculing them in class. Pressure from teachers and peers discourages students who don’t want to harm animals from objecting.

Students who do not want to participate in animal harming experiments can also face more serious problems. There have been cases where students have been taken to court to obligate them to perform experiments. Fortunately, there is a growing acceptance of conscientious objection as a perfectly valid ethical option. Pressures against conscientious objection, including informal ones, are increasingly seen as unacceptable.6

More and more places are legally recognizing the right to conscientious objection. In the United States today there are 16 states in which the right to conscientious objection is recognized. They are: California, Florida, Connecticut, Illinois, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Maine, Maryland, New Mexico, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Virginia and Vermont. There is also more and more awareness and consideration on the part of teachers towards students who object to performing animal experiments, as well as a greater willingness to abandon these experiments.

The shift towards methods that don’t use animals

In addition, the fact that more and more methods to study animal anatomy and physiology do not require the use of live animals will lead to a gradual decrease in their use. In the U.S, the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) had traditionally supported experiments involving the dissection of animals. However, starting in 2008, it revised this position and moved towards recognizing that methods that don’t use animals can be just as effective in learning.

One current method for learning animal anatomy and physiology without performing dissections uses high quality graphics with photographs (and microphotographs) which show the anatomy of animals in maximum detail. Another is the use of vinyl model bullfrogs, with great detail in the various appendages and organs and even the structure of the organs. There are also virtual reality programs like V-Frog ™, which allow students not only to see the anatomy of frogs, but also to carry out a wide range of virtual dissections without having to harm any animal.

One reason software and inanimate models have begun to replace live animals is that they provide great savings for educational centers (since they do not require having to buy animals for each student for course after course). They are also more convenient because it means that teachers avoid spending time having to prepare the animals for dissection (thus saving time) and having to dispose of the bodies once they are used. It also keeps them from having to work with formalin to preserve the bodies and other unpleasant and potentially toxic tasks related to dissecting real bodies and body parts.

Even so, this does not fully explain why the move towards other teaching methods has occurred. Also instrumental in this has been the increasing consideration of humans for animals, and the struggles of many students who have objected to these experiments with animals.

Further readings

Adkins, J. & Lock, R. (1994) “Using animals in secondary education— a pilot survey”, Journal of Biological Education, 28, pp. 48-52.

Asada, Y.; Tsuzuki, M.; Akiyama, S.; Macer, N. Y. & Macer, D. R. J. (1996) “High school teaching of bioethics in New Zealand, Australia, and Japan”, Journal of Moral Education, 25, pp. 401-420.

Balcombe J. (2000) The use of animals in higher education: Problems, alternatives, and recommendations. Washington, D. C.: Humane Society Press.

Balcombe, J. P. (2001) “Dissection: The scientific case for alternatives”, Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, 4, pp. 117-126.

Brown, M. J.; Pearson, P. T. & Thompson, F. N. (1993) “Guidelines for animal surgery in research and teaching”, Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 54, pp. 1544-1559.

Carlson, P. (1995) Alternatives in medical education: Nonanimal methods, Washington, D.C.: Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.

Cross, T. R. (2004) “Scalpel or mouse: A statistical comparison of real and virtual frog dissections”, The American Biology Teacher, 66, pp. 408-411.

Hart, L. A.; Wood, M. W. & Hart, B. L. (2008) Why dissection?, Westport: Greenwood.

Hug, B. (2008) “Re-examining the practice of dissection: What does it teach?”, Journal of Curriculum Studies, 40, pp. 91-105.

Humane Society of the United States (2008) Comparative studies of dissection and other animal uses [Washington, D. C.: Humane Society of the United States, accessed on 19 July 2010].

Jukes, N. & Chiuia, M. (2003) From guinea pig to computer mouse: Alternative methods for a progressive, humane education, 2nd ed., Leicester: InterNICHE.

King, L. A.; Ross, C. L.; Stephens, M. L. & Rowan, A. N. (2004) “Biology teachers’ attitudes to dissection and alternatives”, Alternatives to Laboratory Animals, 32, pp. 475-484.

Kingsmill, S. (1990) “Bullfrog blues: Where have all the bullfrogs gone?”, Seasons, 30 (2), pp. 16-19, 36.

Martinsen, S. & Jukes, N. (2005) “Towards a humane veterinary education”, Journal of Veterinary Medical Education, 32, pp. 454-460.

Nobis, N. (2002) “Animal dissection and evidence-based life-science and health-professions education”, Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, 5, pp. 157-161.

Oakley, J. (2009) “Under the knife: Animal dissection as a contested school science activity”, Journal for Activist Science and Technology Education, 1 (2), pp. 59-67 [accessed on 28 February 2021].

Oakley, J. (2013) Animal dissection in schools: Life lessons, alternatives and humane education, Ann Arbor: Animals & Society Institute.

Rasmussen, L. M. (2001) “Life sciences learning: An approach that promotes progress and respects life”, Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, 4, pp. 131-134.

Sapontzis, S. F. (1995) “We should not allow dissection of animals”, Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics, 8, pp. 181-189.

Valli, T. (2001) “Dissection: The scientific case for a sound medical education”, Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, 4, pp. 127-130.


1 For this reason, even organizations such as the RSPCA that do not object to all uses of animals oppose the practice of keeping live animals as “pets” as schools: Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (2007) Education and animals: Guidance for education establishments in England and Wales, Southwater: Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

2 Institute of Laboratory Animal Resources; Commission on Life Sciences; National Research Council; National Academy of Sciences & National Academy of Engineering (1989) Principles and guidelines for the use of animals in precollege education, Washington: National Academy of Sciences.

3 Capaldo, T. (2004) “The psychological effect on students of using animals in ways that they see as ethically, morally and religiously wrong”, Alternatives to Laboratory Animals, 32 (1, suppl.), pp. 525-531.

4 Francione, G. L. & Charlton, A. E. (1992) Vivisection and dissection in the classroom: A guide to conscientious objection. Jenkintown: American Anti-Vivisection Society.

5 Oakley, J. (2012) “Dissection and choice in the science classroom: Student experiences, teacher responses, and a critical analysis of the right to refuse”, Journal of Teaching and Learning, 8 (2), pp. 15-29 [accessed on 26 February 2023].

6 Balcombe, J. P. (1997) “Student/teacher conflict regarding animal dissection”, The American Biology Teacher, 59, pp. 22-25.