Updated: Mar 15
Dissection is something that is quite common in schools, both in the UK and around the world. It is a practice that seems to be becoming less popular as other methods of examining tissues and body parts become cheaper and more accessible, but what is dissection and why do teachers make students do it?
What is Dissection?
Dissection in biology is taking a once living tissue apart to explore and understand it. This could mean peeling apart the layers of an onion to look at under a microscope, it could mean cutting open a cow’s eyeball to examine it’s anatomy, when you get into higher education it usually means cutting open an entire animal. Normally, in UK schools dissection is performed in secondary schools on organs, not a whole animal; the biology teacher will go to the butcher and buy a bag of hearts or kidneys and give them out to the class. In some classes dissection of some kind is necessary, but it doesn't have to be a hands on experience.
Where Do the Body The Body Parts Come From?
Animals that are used for dissection have not died of natural causes, whether schools get them from the butcher or a specialist company the animals are killed to be used. Body parts from the butcher have come from the slaughter house, another victim of the meat industry. Dissection supply companies will kill animals that are less than 2 years old, that are “free from abnormalities and disease”. This means that they are killing young, healthy animals for a science lesson.
One person, that has since left school said this about their science lessons:
“Mine had a deal with a local butcher, and we got a few hearts (pig, I think) to dissect and examine the veins, arteries, chambers and so on. That was pretty interesting. The aorta is bigger than you'd think. There were also a set of lungs, although only one, that the teacher used to demonstrate lung expansion etc by using a vacuum pump and bell jar. We also got fish heads to dissect in A-level biology, to look at the gills etc. That one really stunk. I felt sorry for the class that was in that room after us.
We also watched videos of vet school dissections (I want to say rat or mouse?), which was probably more educational than doing it yourself, although I got kind of squicked out by watching an entire animal be dissected and didn't really watch until they zoomed into just the insides and I could dissociate it from the animal as a whole. We always had the chance to leave the room and not take part, and we also had the option to stand back and watch but not actively dissect anything ourselves — we were in groups of three or four, and there was always someone willing to take the scalpel and do it all themselves.”
This person shows how disgusting and upsetting cutting up dead animals can be. But, they also show how not cutting up animals, using videos to demonstrate, can actually teach better than a practical lesson. Since this person left school there have been the additional tools of interactive, virtual reality and augmented reality dissections which mean that animals don’t have to be harmed at all. The whole lessons could be computer generated to look exactly like the real thing.
Do We Have to Dissect Animals At All?
More educational centres are removing dissection from their lesson plans, preferring to use interactive simulations and videos to teach with. They have found that, not only do these methods teach people far better than giving someone a dead animal and a knife, but also it stops students from being scared away from subjects that involve dissection. Some people have decided to drop a course after being traumatised by a dissection lesson; others have chosen different courses to avoid it in the first place.
Non-animal teaching methods have also been shown to improve students’ confidence and exam results, and to be more effective at preparing them to work in a laboratory. One study showed that even an exercise as simple as moulding bodily organs out of clay is superior to cat dissection in teaching anatomy to university students.
There’s also the issue of contamination; very few classrooms are furbished or equipped for the infection risk caused by handling dead flesh, there is blood, tissues and sinew that is cut up in a work space that will later be used for a general lesson. The chance of causing poisoning is real, especially in students that haven’t been schooled in preventing the spread of infection and the disease state of the body parts can be unknown. Given that meat that comes from the butcher can cause salmonella and e.coli poisoning after being cooked, handling raw meat is definitely not completely safe.
What Can You Do?
Many companies that supply animals and body parts for dissection believe that they operate in an ethical way, but there is no ethical way to kill an animal that does not want to die. Not only that, it’s not necessary at all. If your school still performs dissections talk to your teachers about the alternatives, refuse to take part in dissection lessons, petition your classmates and put pressure on the school to stop this horrible practice. If you can, get parents to speak to your behalf, they can go to the head teacher, the PTA, the education authority. If we all work together we can make dissection in science lessons history.