The Dissection Debate

LindseyAranson, Staff Reporter

One of the most interesting classes offered at Chattahoochee is one of the least popular. Despite its relevance to various scientific fields including biology and healthcare, only fifteen students take Human Anatomy and Physiology (HAP), which covers all the systems in the human body and how they work together. Because HAP will not be offered for the 2017-2018 school year, these fifteen students will likely be the last at Chattahoochee to participate in this honors class’s memorable end-of-year lab—a cat dissection.

After months of studying the inner workings of the body, the hands-on experience of dissection cements students’ understanding of not only where structures are located, but also how they function.   While animal rights organizations like PETA argue that virtual dissections “have proved to be as good as, and often superior to, [traditional] dissection as a learning tool,” the National Association of Biology Teachers “acknowledges that no alternative can substitute for the actual experience of dissection…and urges teachers to be aware of the limitations of [digital] alternatives.”

Mr. Leet, the HAP teacher, finds that students engage more with true dissections than virtual simulations. “There’s only so many times in a person’s life they can actually cut something open [to] see what’s on the inside,” says Leet, discussing why he teaches cat dissections. “I think that it gets students excited if they want to be doctors. Even if they didn’t think about being a doctor, it might give them the idea, ‘Hey, I might like doing this. I might want to work towards it.’”

For students who want to study healthcare or biology, the tactile experience of traditional dissection is far more informative than a computer simulation. “If you’re planning on going into a field in medicine…you’re not going to be able to see everything. A lot of what you’re going to find [will] be through touch rather than just seeing,” explains Katherine Dunn (SR). While examining the superficial muscles of their feline cadaver, Dunn and her lab partners Emily Macko (SR) and Rachel Thomas (SR) discovered that their cat’s ribs were broken just by feeling the bones through the tissue. The group contends that no virtual alternative can compare to this firsthand learning: “Holding it in your hand is a lot different than watching it on a screen,” Macko insists.  Where computer animations of muscle movements leave students confused and disengaged, manipulating muscles by hand and watching them move instills understanding and wonderment at the complexities of the body.

Because cats share many anatomical structures with humans, this firsthand knowledge is extremely valuable for aspiring healthcare professionals. However, not all students in the HAP class plan to attend medical school. “Dissection is important to know about animals and people when it’s for your job,” acknowledged Elizabeth Noble (SR), “but as a high schooler, I don’t think it’s necessary for my education because this is not what I’m pursuing.”  Noble, a proud cat owner, believes dissection is unethical if it is not absolutely necessary for a specific career path. “It’s not something that’s for my high school anatomy class. It’s not for my career, it’s not what I’m going to school for…I don’t think a bunch of high schoolers should just be able to cut up cats in school.”

Noble’s lab partner Selma Rafiq (SR) was also reluctant to participate in the lab. “[Dissection is] disrespecting the body because we’re taking it apart,” she says, “and I feel like [animals] should be buried.” Responding to the notion that animal dissection is disrespectful, Leet says respect is something he’s “strict” about in the lab. The science teacher demands that “there’s no joking around” in his classroom— “We’re [dissecting cats] to learn something. It’s different from just cutting them up to mutilate them for entertainment.” Although students take pictures of the cat for a muscle and organ identification project, Leet is adamant that pictures are not to be posted on social media. “[Dissection teachers] should do just what Mr. Leet is doing,” said student Celia Imhoff (SR). “[He] make[s] sure that everyone is doing things safely and respectfully.”

However, much of the concern with animal experimentation lies not with the actual act of dissection, but with the suffering the cats endure before they even reach the lab. According to PETA, cats used for dissection may be “stolen or abandoned companion animals” who are gassed and “injected with formaldehyde without first being checked for vital signs.” These claims are unsupported, but animal suppliers like Carolina do obtain euthanized cats from shelters. Carolina, Chattahoochee’s source for preserved cats, emphasizes that these cats “would be destined for the landfill” if they didn’t furnish them for dissection, yet animal rights activists maintain that the purchase of euthanized cats ignores and furthers the problem of kill shelters.

While the neglect faced by euthanized animals in shelters is certainly horrific, PETA’s extreme accusations of animal torture are not rooted by solid evidence. “Animal activists prey on the emotions of pet owners,” responds Carolina, who is “proud to have an outstanding USDA inspection and compliance record.” PETA’s emotional targeting can be most clearly seen on their page PETA Kids, aimed at elementary school children: “EVERY animal used for classroom dissection was once alive and didn’t want to die. I mean, come on!” the page asserts with forced childlike colloquialism. “Would you want to end up on a dissection tray for a classroom experiment? No way, José.”

Countering this argument, Rachel Thomas argues that dissection is “not a fate no human would choose. People donate their bodies…to be cadavers in medical schools.” In fact, Mr. Leet emphasizes that students who want to be doctors and surgeons “will be using human cadavers” in college. “A cat is slightly different [from a human], but it’s analogous with a lot of the same structures…I think [cat dissection] does inform [students] to build on that in college.”

Still, for students uncomfortable with dissection, Mr. Leet does offer an alternate assignment. “If [students] have any [reservations]  about doing this before we start, I’ll say, ‘it’s okay, there is an online thing we can do,’” he says. “However, I hope they would give it a shot because once they start, I think they would find it super interesting.” Seeing that no one opted for the virtual dissection, Mr. Leet was correct. “I hope the students…get something out of it. I hope they get a passion for the human body and how anatomy and physiology work.”

From my experience in Mr. Leet’s HAP class, I would definitely argue for the educational benefits of dissection. Before this lab, it was difficult for me to envision the textures, sizes and locations of anatomical structures—and while I don’t plan on entering a medical field, I feel that understanding the body is important for anyone who has one (that would be everyone). At the same time, however, it is important to consider whether these educational benefits outweigh the potential harm to animals. This is certainly a controversial issue, and it’s up to us to enforce proper regulations and respect for all life.

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