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To Harm or Not to Harm: Animals and Higher Education

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 20037.
Table of Contents:
What's Wrong With Harming Animals for Education?
Humane Alternatives
What You Can Do
Recommended Reading

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 demonstrations–for 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 values.

What's Wrong with Harming Animals For Education?

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Animal Suffering

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.

Social Costs

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, alternatives–unlike most dissection specimens–are 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.

Humane Alternatives

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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 desensitization.

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.

Computer Programs

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 other invertebrates.

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.

Physiological Self-Study

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 steps:

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 you make.

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; E-mail:

Recommended Reading

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    J. P. Balcombe, "Education by Extermination," Animals' Agenda 14 (1994): 22–25.

    D. R. Gilmore, "Politics and Prejudice: Dissection in Biology Education, Part 1," American Biology Teacher 53, no. 5 (1991): 211–213.

    L. H. Hepner, Animals in Education: The Facts, Issues and Implications(Albuquerque: Richmond Publishers, 1994).

    F. B. Orlans, "Debating Dissection," Science Teacher 55 (1988): 36–40.