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Questions and Answers About Dissection

The Humane Society of the United States

Q: How many animals are dissected in the United States each year?
A: Millions of vertebrate animals are dissected yearly in U.S. high schools alone, with an additional, unknown number used in colleges, and middle and elementary schools. The number of invertebrate animals dissected is probably comparable to that of vertebrate animals.

Q: Which animals are used in dissection?
A: The most commonly dissected vertebrate animals are frogs, fetal pigs and cats. Other vertebrate animals used in dissection include dogfish sharks, perch, rats, pigeons, salamanders, rabbits, mice, turtles, snakes, mink, foxes, and bats. Invertebrate animals used in dissection include crayfish, grasshoppers, earthworms, clams, sea stars, squid, sea urchins, and cockroaches.

Q: Aren't most of the animals used in dissection raised in captivity?
A: No. Frogs, spiny dogfish (sharks), mudpuppies and other salamanders, birds, snakes, turtles, fish, and most invertebrate animals used in dissection are predominantly taken from the wild.

Q: Fetal pigs are by-products of the meat industry, so what's wrong with using them?
A: Many students object to using fetal pigs because of their concern for the treatment of animals raised for human consumption. Almost all of the 97 million pigs slaughtered annually for human consumption in the United States are raised in crowded, confined conditions, where they are deprived of space, fresh air, and fresh forage for the duration of their shortened lives. Many also have their tails cut off and their teeth excised as piglets. The fetuses that end up in dissection trays are taken from pregnant sows at the slaughterhouse.

Q: So many cats are euthanized in animal shelters, so what's wrong with using them?
A: The Humane Society of the United States does not oppose the transfer of euthanized animals from animal shelters to educational and research institutions, provided that all of the following conditions are met:

Any animal involved must have been humanely euthanized due to either mortal illness or injury, or because no suitable home could be found for the animal within a reasonable time.

Second, animal cadavers should be transferred only when the animal's former owner has been informed of the policy of giving euthanized animals to educational and research institutions and has given consent. If the animal was received as a stray with no known owner, it must first be held the appropriate number of days as required by ordinance for an owner to reclaim prior to being released. Full public awareness of any animal transfer policy is vital to maintaining public trust in animal shelters. Regardless of owner consent, however, shelters not wishing to supply animal carcasses to institutions should not be compelled to do so.

Third, such transfers should not involve elementary, middle or high schools. The HSUS opposes the practice of animal dissection in pre-college classrooms for numerous reasons. At the college level, we acknowledge the need for animal cadavers in veterinary training, for instance, but emphasize the importance that cadavers come from humanely euthanized animals and that no animals be raised or killed specifically for use in dissection.

Fourth, the transfer of animals from shelters should not involve any exchange of money. This condition applies to the shelters themselves as well as any middlemen who transport the animals to the educational or research facilities. So-called "surplus" dogs and cats are a result of the tragic pet overpopulation and millions of dogs and cats are euthanized yearly in U.S. shelters. When money can be made in dealing in their carcasses, it can give the perception that there may be less incentive for addressing overpopulation or that the shelter would rather gain from this tragedy than spend the money necessary to solve it.

Q: What is pithing?
A: Pithing is a means of destroying an animal's central nervous system in order to study various physiological processes. Frogs and turtles are two species commonly used in pithing labs, and the procedure is commonly performed in undergraduate-level classes. If conducted properly, pithing severs the spinal cord of the live animal and destroys the brain by inserting a needle into the back of the skull and moving the needle around in order to "scramble" brain tissue; the needle is then inserted into the vertebral canal in order to destroy reflexes. The animal continues to function physiologically for hours following the pithing procedure. The HSUS is opposed to pithing of animals in the classroom and further believes that the overwhelming ethical and animal welfare concerns associated with pithing far outweigh its educational benefit, especially when there are suitable alternatives available to teach the same curriculum.

Q: What states have dissection laws, resolutions or policies?
A: The following states have laws upholding a student's right to choose humane alternatives to dissection without being penalized: Florida, California, Connecticut Pennsylvania, New York, Rhode Island, Illinois, Virginia, Oregon, New Jersey and Vermont. Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, and New Mexico have Board of Education policies, and Louisiana passed a state resolution in 1992. Many schools and school boards have also independently enacted student-choice policies.

Q: Do any other countries have laws regarding dissection?
A: Animal dissection was banned from schools in Argentina in 1987 and in Slovakia in 1994. In 1993, Italy enacted a law that recognizes the right of conscientious objectors to refuse to participate in animal experimentation. As of 2005, three quarters of Italian universities have abolished the use of live animal experiments for educational purposes according to a recent report at the 2nd InterNICHE Conference in Norway. In spring 1998, the Indian government made animal dissection optional for school students in the country. Also, in 2001 the Central Board of Secondary Education in India banned from the curriculum the dissection of mice, rats and frogs. In addition, the state of Queensland in Australia allows primary and secondary school students to perform an alternative to dissection without penalty. In December 1999, the Israeli Minister of Education announced an immediate ban on dissection and live-animal experimentation in the country's schools.

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