Education's Debate over High School Dissections

Apr 26, 2012

High school anatomy class has nearly always meant dissecting frogs, pigs and cats. But times are changing. More students in Lexington want an alternative that doesn’t involve the use of once-living animals.

In Carlos Verdecchia’s anatomy class at Bryan Station High, students listen to announcements and then get down to business: Today, they’re dissecting cats. Students pull preserved cats out of large blue plastic bags and begin work.

Dissection has been part of the science curriculum in Fayette County for years. But 10 states now have laws that schools must allow students to opt out for religious, moral, or ethical reasons.  An alternative method of study is then given. As a result of one parent’s campaign, this option could be available in some Lexington classrooms.

Kaitlin Graff wanted to take elective anatomy at Henry Clay High School four years ago, but didn’t. She couldn’t handle the thought of dissecting a real cat. She had concerns about how the animals were acquired. Graff also couldn’t stop thinking about how a lab cat had been once been a living being, running around like her own two cats.

Says Graff, “At the time, I was thinking about becoming a physical or occupational therapist. The class would have been crucial to that kind of work.”

Kaitlin’s mother, Anne, shared her daughter’s concerns and petitioned repeatedly to have Henry Clay and other area high schools consider alternatives. As a result of her efforts, two science teachers, one at Tates Creek High, the other at Bryan Station, have just started exploring options such as clay models and computer simulations.

Says Anne Graff, “The reason I’m so passionate about this topic is because I believe the dissection requirement shouldn’t hold back anyone who’s interested in learning about human anatomy, from the dancer to the artist to those interested in the medical profession.”

For her work, Anne Graff won a national award last year from Animalearn, a division of the American Anti-Vivisection Society. The award comes with $1,000 worth of material, like software and models, that can be used as alternatives to dissection. Graff wants to donate the material to Fayette County for use in pilot projects.

Fayette County Public Schools science specialist David Helm is open to Graff’s help.  With money tight, Helm says it’s difficult to explore alternatives without outside help.

“Tradition mandates that we offer certain things over and over forever and ever because we always have. But society’s changing, and sometimes we forget that our kids our changing along with it,” says Helm.

Anne Graff’s efforts prompted a survey last year at Henry Clay High School.  Out of 233 biology students polled, about 12 percent would be more interested in elective anatomy without cat dissection. When WEKU tried to find out if Henry Clay is exploring options, educators declined repeated requests for an interview.

The Humane Society of the United States says many animals used for dissection suffer during their capture, handling, transport, and killing. 

Offering alternatives is supported by the National Science Teachers Association. Carlos Verdecchia at Bryan Station is one of the teachers open to the idea.

Says Verdecchia, “Science is a little taboo for kids, just like math is, so the more we can do to hook them into this, I definitely like to use everything I can.”

Back in Verdecchia’s classroom, students like Clifford Austin are hard at work dissecting cats.

“This has opened up my eyes to doing some surgery and stuff. I might go into plastic surgery or some other type field,” says Austin.

Nearby, fellow student Rachel Wood wasn’t as gung-ho. 

“I have two cats at my house so I feel a little weird,” says Wood.

Wood also said that for hours after class, she is bothered by the smell of the preservative used on the cats. Sensitivity by students to these chemicals is another reason behind allowing students to opt out.

Proponents of dissection say there are no substitutes for it. But other educators say a kid uncomfortable with dissection who is given an alternative might well get inspired to go into a career in science or medicine that has nothing to do with surgery.