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To Harm or Not to Harm: Animals and Higher
This brochure, published by The HSUS and reproduced in its entirety here, can help you
obtain an education in accordance with your sensitivities and moral principles regarding
the treatment of animals. It presents information on humane alternatives to activities
that harm animals and provides suggestions for implementing those alternatives in your
school. To order a copy of this brochure, send $1.00 per brochure, plus $3.00 for shipping
and handling (check or money order only), to The HSUS, 2100 L Street, NW, Washington, DC
Table of Contents:
What's Wrong With Harming Animals for Education?
What You Can Do
Every year in the United States and Canada, more than a million animals are harmed and/or
killed in college and university courses such as general biology, anatomy, physiology, and
psychology. Rats, mice, cats, dogs, fetal pigs, pigeons, turtles, and dogfish sharks are
among those commonly used. Most are killed and dissected (cut apart). Others are
vivisected (subjected to an invasive procedure while alive) in demonstrationsfor
example, demonstrations of muscle function in physiology laboratories. Still other animals
are used in experiments involving harm and/or death, as when they are deprived of food or
water to demonstrate behavioral conditioning, injected with substances that alter their
behavior, or killed to obtain dividing cells for a genetics exercise.
Today students are protesting, and educators questioning, the way we use animals in the
name of education. Their objections include unnecessary suffering and death, environmental
disruption, risks to human health, and the deterioration of social values that results
from teaching students to accept the destruction of other creatures. Effective nonanimal
and/or noninvasive alternatives are readily available for use in courses that have
traditionally involved harming and/or killing animals.
If you are a student planning to take any college or university life-science courses, you
will probably be expected to use animals. However, whether you use animals ultimately is
your decision. As a student, you are entitled to an education compatible with your moral
What's Wrong with Harming Animals For Education?
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Like humans, all nonhuman vertebrates have complex nervous systems. Few people doubt
that these animals can suffer deprivation, stress, and pain. At least some invertebrates
also appear to have similar capacities. We have an obligation to spare all animals
unnecessary pain and suffering, such as that caused by harming them for educational uses.
For the dog who experiences fear when being prepared for a demonstration of surgical
procedures, the frog who feels the sudden assault of the pithing probe or scissors used to
induce brain death, and the pigeon who endures hunger or thirst in the Skinner box, the
suffering caused by such procedures is very real.
Killing animals, as for dissection, may also entail considerable suffering. Although
students do not ordinarily witness or participate in the animal's death, this death
necessarily precedes any dissection. Supplying animals for dissection is big business.
Routinely the animals suffer during capture and/or killing. For example, dogfish sharks
suffocate in the nets that trap them or die, gasping, after being dragged from the water.
Investigations in Mexico in 1994 and 1995 uncovered operations supplying cats to the
United States for dissection. These suppliers killed thousands of cats by drowning them
ten at a time or by slitting their throats.
Environmental and Health Costs
Many of the animals harmed or killed for classroom use are caught in the wild.
Populations of wild frogs have declined dramatically in recent years. Although we do not
know the precise degree to which capture for use in education affects such populations,
the impact is certainly negative. In just one week, a single supplier may obtain three
thousand or more frogs for use in schools. Devastation of any free-living population can
have far-reaching consequences for the surrounding ecological community.
The hazardous chemicals used to preserve dead animals as specimens threaten both the
environment and human health. Formaldehyde, the most widely used preservative, is a
suspected carcinogen; it can harm the environment and poses a health risk to students
through skin contact or inhalation of fumes. Symptoms of formaldehyde exposure include
eye, nose, and throat irritation; a persistent cough; respiratory distress; skin
irritation; nausea; headache; and dizziness.
One of education's most important goals is to instill a sense of compassion and respect
for others. Dissection and other harmful uses of animals undermine this goal because they
involve treating animals as expendable commodities.
Some procedures performed on animals in education are openly violent, particularly those
that entail killing. Pithing involves inserting a sharp object into the animal's braincase
and moving it around vigorously to scramble the brain. It remains a common method of
rendering frogs and turtles brain-dead for physiology laboratory exercises. The effects of
such procedures on students' sensibilities are difficult to assess, but critics have
expressed concern about the devaluing of life implicit in exercises that treat feeling
animals as mere tools, as well as the tendency of such exercises to alienate sensitive
students from the life sciences or further harden those who are less sensitive.
Availability of Alternatives
Quite apart from its cost in animal suffering, environmental damage, human health
risks, and undermining of positive social values, the destruction of animals for education
is simply unnecessary. Abundant materials are available for learning anatomy, physiology,
toxicology, and other biological disciplines that do not require the suffering and/or
death of animals. Studies have found that the test performance of students using humane
alternatives equals or surpasses that of students who use animals. Furthermore,
alternativesunlike most dissection specimensare durable and reusable; over
time they cost a school less than the annual purchase of animals.
Of course, humane alternatives need not exclude live animals; there are many ways to study
animals without causing them harm. The best place to appreciate animals, and their
evolutionary history, is in their natural habitat. Many informative and fascinating field
studies have been designed for biology students, and the possibilities for novel studies
are unlimited. Domesticated animals can also be studied in appropriate situations.
Numerous noninvasive experiments can be performed with living animals or with students
themselves to illustrate a wide variety of physiological and other phenomena.
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The alternative techniques listed below have proven effective in learning a variety of
subjects that have traditionally involved harming and/or killing animals. In combination
these techniques may also complement each other. These methods avoid any direct animal
suffering, environmental degradation, health risks, or potential for ethical
Observation of Animals
Careful observation is the scientist's most basic and important skill, whether in
biology or any other discipline. Studying animals "in the field" provides
challenging opportunities to develop practical skills and scientific methods.
Well-designed observation projects can teach you how to design a study; formulate
hypotheses; collect, analyze, and present data; and draw conclusions.
Programs available on CD-ROMs, videodiscs, and standard computer disks allow you to
learn interactively while controlling the lesson's focus, direction, and pace. Like most
dissection alternatives, but not dissection itself, they permit unlimited repetition of
the learning exercise. Many also incorporate questions and problems to be solved, allowing
you to monitor your mastery of the information. Available programs include simulations of
the anatomy and/or physiology of humans, rats, frogs, fetal pigs, sharks, and crayfish and
CD-ROMs and videodiscs can offer still, animated, and live-action images, substantial
text, and a soundtrack. CD-ROMs can store a great deal of information in a small package,
while videodiscs, although bulkier, offer excellent high-resolution images.
This approach takes advantage of the life processes in which your own body is
constantly engaged and allows you to monitor and study non-invasively such phenomena as
heart function, respiration, muscle physiology, and blood pressure. The presentation and
analysis of real data allow you to compare and appreciate variation among different
students in your class.
Usually made of plastic, models typically have removable, labeled parts that provide
high detail and realism. Whereas preserved specimens are usually faded and used only once,
models are colored to reflect the appearance of a living organism and can be used year
after year. Available models include those of the entire human body, rat, cow, fetal pig,
bullfrog, and invertebrates.
Videos can provide much the same visual information as an actual specimen. Moreover,
the camera can provide perspectives and the narration explain details that dissecting
tools cannot. Currently available videos cover the physiology and anatomy of a wide range
of organisms, including the human, cat, rat, fetal pig, frog, perch, shark, crayfish,
clam, earthworm, and starfish.
Books and Manuals
Modern biology textbooks are filled with up-to-date information and excellent
illustrations. The illustrations that accompany medical manuals and texts provide detail,
realism, and a more comprehensive view of an organism's anatomy than a dissected specimen.
These resources are an indispensable supplement to any study of anatomy.
What You Can Do
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If you do not wish to harm or kill animals during your education, you are not alone.
Surveys indicate that most students have reservations concerning the harmful use of
animals in education. Unfortunately, few students express their objections to their
teachers; most probably believe they should not question what they are told to do in
class. In speaking out about your education, however, you are showing that you take your
education very seriously. Remember: you are not trying to avoid learning the material; you
are seeking more humane, and often more effective, ways to learn.
To complete your education without harming or killing animals, you can take these
1. Find Out
As soon as possible, preferably before the term starts, find out if any course in which
you are enrolling involves any animal use. If so, what animals will be used? How will they
be used? For what educational purpose? The course supervisor can provide the most reliable
information. Also ask whether your college has a policy exempting concerned students from
harming or killing animals. If so, obtain a copy of the policy statement.
2. Consider Your Objections
Consider the reasons for which you do not wish to harm animals as partof your
education. It will probably help to write down your thoughts. Also, compile information on
suitable humane alternatives for the particular course in which you are enrolled.
3. Talk to Others
Talk to other students in your course to see if they share your concerns. Most likely,
other students too have reservations about the harming and killing of animals in
education. Ask them if they also would prefer a humane alternative.
4. Suggest an Alternative
Politely but firmly tell your professor that you do not wish to participate in harmful
animal use. Explain your willingness to learn the material using nonanimal alternatives.
Be prepared to express your particular objections to the way animals are to be used in the
course. If your professor cannot suggest any nonanimal alternatives, offer some
suggestions, bearing in mind the course's learning objectives.
5. Go Higher Up
Ideally you and your professor can agree on a mutually satisfactory solution. If,
however, he/she is unwilling to accommodate you, take your request to the appropriate dean
or department head.
6. Seek Outside Assistance
At any point during this process, feel free to contact The HSUS for information or
advice. We can give you specific information on alternatives and, if necessary, some
guidance about seeking legal counsel. Remember, the earlier you contact us, the more help
we can provide. Keep a record of all correspondence and meetings and any other contacts
For more information, contact The Humane Society of the United States, Animal Research
Issues section, 2100 L St., NW, Washington, DC 20037; (301) 258-3046; fax: (301) 258-7760;
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J. P. Balcombe, "Education by Extermination," Animals' Agenda 14
D. R. Gilmore, "Politics and Prejudice: Dissection in Biology Education, Part
1," American Biology Teacher 53, no. 5 (1991): 211213.
L. H. Hepner, Animals in Education: The Facts, Issues and Implications(Albuquerque:
Richmond Publishers, 1994).
F. B. Orlans, "Debating Dissection," Science Teacher 55 (1988):