ANNAPOLIS – Students in Dan Pogonowski’s zoology class learn invaluable lessons while dissecting squid, sharks and rabbits, among other animals — lessons, the Annapolis High School teacher said, that cannot be replaced by pictures or models.
But not everyone is convinced dissection has a place in Maryland’s classrooms.
A recent controversy involving a Baltimore County high school student has educators, scientists and animal activists debating whether dissection should be a part of the state’s public school science curriculum.
Opponents say the process is outdated, expensive and cruel to animals while supporters say it is an irreplaceable part of a public education.
In late September, 16-year-old Kenwood High School junior Jennifer Watson refused to dissect a cat in her anatomy class. After publicly protesting, Jennifer was allowed to return to class and use computer software to simulate the dissection. Baltimore County Public Schools spokesman Doug Neilson said he understood that the girl refused to dissect the cat because she owned one.
The majority of the state’s public high schools include animal dissections – mostly earthworms, frogs, cats and fetal pigs – in biology and anatomy curriculums, said Maryland Association of Science Teachers president Barbara Gage. The prevailing policy, however, is that students are not required to do the dissections as long as they complete another alternative.
Frederick County Public Schools, like most others in the state, offer online and CD-ROM dissections using an “electronic knife” or the option of looking at textbook pictures or plastic models, said Frederick County science curriculum specialist Larkin Hohnke. Plasticized models, animal specimens injected with preservatives, are also popular alternatives.
“It’s not the same thing as doing it in a person, but you cover the same material,” Hohnke said.
Nevertheless, Gage is adamant that a model or computer screen cannot replace the value of an actual dissection.
“It’s very hard to do a dissection on the computer screen. I don’t think the computer software is at the point right now where it’s really realistic,” said Gage, who is also a chemistry professor at Prince George’s Community College. “It’s very different to look and see how things are arranged (in an animal) – what it looks like, how it feels like, the odor of it.”
Animal activists have been trying for years to ban dissections in schools, saying the alternatives are cheaper and more humane.
Basing their estimates on a hypothetical school’s needs, The Human Society of the United States concluded that providing 135 preserved cats for dissection costs from $8,326 to $3,206 depending on the vendor.
Cat dissection alternatives, however, range from $70 to $800, depending on the complexity of the alternative, with a full array of options totaling $1,865, the Humane Society said.
Marge Inden, Frederick County Humane Society executive director, said she sees medical benefits in the practice of dissection, but not for high school students.
“Dissection for purely instructional purposes I think is entirely unnecessary,” Inden said. “We feel that medical experimentation advances science. But at a high school level, let’s face it: How many high school students have made a medical breakthrough?”
Gage argued that students could become interested in a career in science after doing a dissection.
“It (dissection) may really inspire a student to go on and do something involved with animals,” Gage said.
One of the school systems’ main animal distributors, Fisher Science Education, headquartered in Pennsylvania, guarantees all its animals “are obtained using humane and socially accepted procedures,” according to the company’s Web site.
For some animal advocates, that reassurance is not enough. “I have personally come to the conclusion that what we really ought to be teaching kids is a respect for life,” said Animal Advocates of Howard County member Martha Gagnon. “It’s (dissection) not even good science. You do not need to be dissecting animals on a high school level.” – 30 – CNS-10-11-02