The modern curriculum is no place for cutting up dead animals, argues PETA’s Dr Julia Baines

As a teacher, if you could take a stand against needless suffering while improving your students’ learning experience, wouldn’t you jump at the opportunity? Fortunately, this isn’t a rhetorical exercise: you can do both, by replacing animal dissection with modern methods that deliver practical and relevant anatomy lessons without harming animals.

Progressive teachers know that asking pupils to cut up dead animals is a waste of lives, money, and educational opportunities. Dissection was used as a way of studying anatomy, biology, physiology and the theory of evolution in the Victorian era. Needless to say, much has changed since the 19th century. Today, using dissection to train students for the modern scientific world is like teaching calculus with an abacus. Although animal dissection returned to the A-level curriculum in 2015 after a 30-year hiatus, it’s neither compulsory nor the best teaching approach.

Nearly every published comparative study has concluded that modern, non-animal teaching-tools such as interactive computer simulations can teach anatomy and complex biological processes at least as well as animal dissection. Non-animal teaching methods have also been shown to improve students’ confidence and examination results, and to be more effective at preparing them to work in a laboratory. One study showed that even an exercise as simple as moulding bodily organs out of clay is superior to cat dissection in teaching anatomy to university students.

Using dissection to train students for the modern scientific world is like teaching calculus with an abacus

Many of the organs dissected in classrooms come from animals which were raised on factory farms. In these facilities, animals are crowded by the thousands into filthy, windowless sheds. Females are repeatedly and forcibly impregnated, babies are torn away from their mothers, cows may be denied space to move around, and male piglets are commonly castrated without pain relief. After a few months, the animals are sent to slaughter – and many are killed while they’re still conscious.

Cadavers may also be obtained from biological supply companies, which typically keep animals in barren cages for the entirety of their short lives. A PETA US exposé of a large biological supply company documented cases in which animals were removed from gas chambers and injected with formaldehyde without first being checked for vital signs. The eyewitness video footage shows cats and rats struggling during injection. One rabbit, still alive after being gassed, tried to crawl out of a wheelbarrow full of dead rabbits.

No matter the origin of animals’ body parts and the primary purpose for which they were killed, cutting them up in the classroom sends students the message that animals’ lives are expendable and hold little value, except insofar as they’re useful to humans. We owe it to young people to teach them to respect life, not coldly disregard it.

When students aren’t forced to compromise their ethics by participating in an exercise that harms animals, their passion and talent for science can blossom. Perhaps that’s why the US National Science Teachers Association – the largest science-education organisation in the world – amended its position statement nearly a decade ago to endorse the use of non-animal methods.

If ethical and educational reasons aren’t enough, consider this: after an initial investment, switching to non-animal methods will save schools money over the long term. Computer programs, sophisticated simulators, and other non-animal methods are reusable year after year. Once an animal has been dissected, the body is simply discarded.

Science and ethics have progressed greatly since the 1800s. Isn’t it time that the science taught in our classrooms caught up? When digital dissection programs, virtual experiments, three-dimensional models of organs, and more are readily available, there’s no reason to continue using dead animals.

Dr Julia Baines is science policy adviser for PETA UK