(ANIMAL RESEARCH) Most students dread the day when they must dissect an animal for biology class. Although the practice has become less common in schools, the discussion continues over whether the educational benefit of dissections outweighs the damaging effects on the development of empathy and compassion in children. In this preview from her upcoming book Raising Kids Who Love Animals, child psychiatrist Dr. Sujatha Ramakrishna discusses why animal dissections in schools and universities do more harm than good. — Global Animal
Preview with permission from the book, Why Children Need Animals by Sujatha Ramakrishna, M.D.
When I was in kindergarten, our teacher obtained some frog eggs from the local nature center. Our entire class watched as they hatched into tadpoles, then lost their tails and grew legs to become adult frogs. After they were fully mature, they were taken back to the nature center and released into the wild. We got to watch them develop, and they received protection from predators. It was a mutually beneficial arrangement.
In the years that followed, I participated in some science experiments which were not so beneficial for the animals, and looking back I realize that they were not even beneficial for the students.
First, there were the dissections. We started with earthworms. I remember looking for worms in the grass at school, killing them, and slicing them open. Our assignment was to identify circulatory, reproductive, and digestive systems. I don’t think that we ever found them. I also remember reading, with trepidation, a section in a science text describing the different ways that we could kill a frog. Fortunately, our frogs came to us already dead. That particular dissection was at least a better educational experience than most, because the internal organs of a frog are relatively easy to examine.
The most horrific animal experiment involved using a microscope to visualize blood flow in the capillaries of a live goldfish, while the fish lay there and suffocated. I couldn’t stand it. I put my fish right back into his cup of water as soon as he started gasping, which meant that I didn’t even complete the exercise. To my dismay, he still ended up dead by the time that class was over. Our teacher couldn’t understand what my problem was.
Well, the problem was that I was a compassionate kid. Seeing animals suffer made me upset. It makes most children upset, until teachers and other adults tell them to forget about those feelings and get with the program. In the classroom, where there is great pressure to conform, it can be difficult for kids to stand up for what they know to be right.
Some might say that the educational value of these experiments outweighs their detrimental effects on the development of empathy in children. As a physician and pediatric psychiatrist, I strongly disagree.
When I was in college, the conventional wisdom was that pre-med students should take a vertebrate anatomy class. So I did. We cut up a shark, and then a cat, which I assumed came from one of the local pounds, possibly someone’s former pet. During my human anatomy course in medical school, I realized how useless dissecting animals had been. Knowing the names of some of the muscles was a slight advantage, but that was about it.
Cutting up dead human bodies is an awful experience, and in some ways it is designed to be awful. No successful surgeon constantly worries about hurting the patient as she is cutting open his abdomen to remove a tumor. To do her job properly, she must learn to disregard those feelings of compassion while operating. Dissecting cadavers is an initiation into that process.
Unfortunately, many med students get initiated a little too much. They put their empathy aside, and they never find it again. When they become physicians, they think of their patients as diseases, or sets of lab values, instead of human beings. Compassion itself is therapeutic, and doctors who lose this quality are much less likely to be effective in helping people.
The same thing happens when kids are forced to use animals in laboratory exercises. They must suppress their feelings of empathy in order to dissect dead animals or experiment on live ones. Numerous psychological studies have shown a correlation between animal cruelty during childhood and aggression towards other people later in life. Having an educational system which encourages the mistreatment of animals is not a positive thing for our society.
In the last few decades, educators in the U.S. have taken these factors into consideration. Policies vary from state to state, but many schools now allow students to opt out of animal dissection and experimentation without penalty. Even medical schools have gradually removed live animal labs from their programs, due to ethical concerns of the students.
Elementary-school science and high-school biology are certainly subjects which can be mastered without causing harm to animals. Models and computer simulation programs offer wonderful alternatives. Students and parents who care about animals can discuss these options with their teachers and local school boards. If more people speak up about these issues, and demand change, together we can work towards a more humane educational system.