Dissection Alternatives

Humane education - Photo by Jim Mullhaupt

More than 12 million animals, including frogs, cats, rats, fetal pigs, fish and a variety of invertebrates are used for dissection in the US each year. At a time when numerous interactive and immersive alternatives are available, it’s time to end this outdated practice once and for all by adopting non-animal teaching methods.

Non-animal methods are not only more humane, but also more effective, more inclusive, safer, and more economical. A literature review conducted by the Society for Humane Science (SHS; formerly Animals in Science Policy Institute) indicated that in 88 percent of studies, non-animal methods were superior or equivalent to dissection. Non-animal methods reduce the emotional, ethical, and religious barriers to education. They also avoid the use of sharp scalpels or harsh preservative chemicals. Contrary to popular belief, many non-animal methods actually cost less than preserved animals, and there are typically no recurring annual costs.

Investigations into the capture, transport, warehousing and killing of animals destined for dissection have documented cruel and callous treatment. An estimated 20,000 to 50,000 cats are used for dissection each year; many have been aggressively collected from residential communities in the US and Mexico to be sold to biological supply houses for use as specimens. Frogs are taken by the millions from wetland habitats for dissection purposes—despite the fact that amphibians are declining throughout the world due to a variety of threats including habitat destruction, pollution, climate change, disease and collection for commercial use. Frogs are piled into sacks, transported, and then inhumanely killed by immersion in preservative. The mass removal of these animals can have detrimental impacts on ecosystems.

Effective Non-animal Methods

AWI encourages the use of cost-effective, reusable dissection alternatives, including interactive apps and three-dimensional models which sacrifice neither animals nor quality education. AWI and SHS collaborated to create a list of some of the most effective and engaging non-animal methods currently available (related lesson plans can be found here). There are a variety of excellent options, and many are feasible for online education.

Froggipedia is geared toward middle school students and features a fascinating and easy-to-use 3D model of a breathing frog. It offers the following modes: (1) “Life Cycle,” which has an animation feature that allows you to move a cursor to view the frog submerged in a pond as it develops from a single-celled egg to a tadpole and eventually to an adult frog. (2) “Augmented Reality Anatomy,” which works like a camera that projects the frog onto wherever you point your lens, so the frog can appear to be in your hand or on your desk. You can “peel back layers” and view individual body systems inside the frog—for example, the skeletal system, the muscular system, or the digestive system. (3) “Dissection,” with which you can conduct a traditional-style dissection using your finger or an Apple Pencil to “cut” through the frog’s skin and muscle, locating different organs and learning about their function. The app also includes a quiz with eight organs to identify. Froggipedia was awarded the “iPad App of the Year” in 2018. Version 3.0 can be purchased for just $3.99 in the Apple App Store (available only for iPhone and iPad) and is available in 8 languages.

3D Frog Anatomy by Biosphera is an interactive model that permits the user to view the various systems of the frog individually or in combination and from any angle, along with the option to zoom in and out. You can learn anatomy by hovering over an area of the frog to see the name of the particular body part. There are 11 other Biosphera models, including cat, pig, fish, and human. Pricing varies depending on the species and device: The 3D Frog Anatomy for mobile versions (Android, Apple, or Windows devices) is $11.99, and the desktop software costs $26 for individual use and $39 for multiple users.

Frog Paper Dissection: Scienstructable 3D Dissection Model by Getting Nerdy with Mel and Gerdy enjoys support from teachers and students alike. It is a great option for students who do not have easy access to an electronic device. This low-tech (or no-tech) model is geared toward those in grades 4 to 12, but it is typically used by 7th graders. The cost of the frog model is $22.95 and the price drops if a number of licenses are purchased at once. There are a wide variety of other species options, including cat, fetal pig, earthworm, and crayfish. Patience is required to cut out all of the individual pieces, but there are clear instructions on how to assemble the models, and there is an online guide to making repairs and a suggestion for how best to display the models.

Merge Cube is an educational tool that can provide a fully immersive experience, but it is one of the more costly options when used to its full capacity. It consists of a soft foam 5-inch cube that costs $19.99 and is used in combination with the Merge Explorer app, which can be launched on an Apple, Android, or Windows 10 device. This app, which runs $9.99/month for individual use or at a discounted price for schools, contains dozens of STEM-related components. When the device is pointed at the cube, it transforms it into a 3D model on the device’s screen that can be held and rotated. A Frog’s Life—one of the app’s components—allows you to watch a frog’s life cycle and perform a virtual dissection. The Merge Explorer app can be made more interactive if used with a virtual reality headset that costs $49.99. While the Merge Cube offers an impressive array of activities for a number of STEM-related disciplines, we found its frog dissection app to be less impressive than other apps described above. This system has received a lot of acclaim, including the Parents’ Choice Award, the Academics’ Choice Brain Toy Award, and the Tech and Learning Award of Excellence. The manufacturer suggests it is suitable for ages 10 and above.

Other options include Frog Dissection by GP Strategies (an older app—we did not consider the graphics as good), 3D Anatomica (detailed human anatomy, not nonhuman animals), and SynFrog by SynDaver (a synthetic frog that can be dissected without the blood and bad smells—kids enjoyed it, but at $150 for one frog model that also requires special handling, it is one of the more expensive options).

Encourage your School to End Dissections

Cats, frogs, fetal pigs, grasshoppers, mink, earthworms, rats, mice, dogs, pigeons, and turtles are just some of the many animals used in school dissection projects. Investigations into the capture, transport, warehousing and killing of animals destined for dissection show that the procurement process cause unnecessary suffering and death. Millions of frogs are taken from wetland habitats, piled into sacks and inhumanely killed by immersion in preservative. Frog populations are rapidly disappearing worldwide and the use of wild-caught frogs for dissections is a contributing factor to frog declines in many parts of the world.

Many students and teachers are questioning the educational value and ethics of using animals in the classroom. Modern technology can teach students about the biology of living beings and to appreciate the vital role that all animals play in the natural world—without sacrificing the animals themselves.