Animal dissections mark a distinctive week for the biology department: a week during which the lab rooms reek of formaldehyde and of curious chemicals and students rush to their next classes with aprons flapping about their ankles and goggle marks circling their eyes. These dissections distinguish the brave (who jump to their feet with a scalpel in hand) from the queasy (who cower away from the animal on the table, pushing the work onto their lab partner). However, for all students, animal dissections play an important role in understanding animal anatomy, creating a solid foundation of knowledge through a hands-on, albeit messy, procedure.
To fulfill lab requirements in the Regents Biology curriculum, students must complete dissections of the earthworm, frog, grasshopper, and sheep’s heart. Freshman biology teacher Marissa Maggio opts to have her classes dissect a fetal pig for a more enriching experience. And if basic dissections fail to satisfy, ambitious students can choose to take the biology elective Vertebrate Zoology, which focuses on a selection of unique animals such as the shark, cat, and mink. “Animal dissections are helpful because they allow us to learn certain structures in animals and compare their anatomies to the human body. This would help us learn more about the functions of human organs,” sophomore Jeffrey Yan said.
Research coordinator Dr. Jonathan Gastel agreed, providing four reasons why the biology department advocates animal dissections. “They show people the change in the process of animal evolution; as animals ourselves, animal dissections allow us to understand our own physiology and functions; animal dissections require similar skills as those of surgery, and teach careful technical skills; and lastly, animal dissections offer an enriching three-dimensional experience that allows students to understand and record what they’ve learned through drawing and labeling,” Dr. Gastel said.
Despite general enthusiasm for dissections, most students do not know where the animals come from. These animals are ordered from a company called Bio Corporation, which has been the school’s go-to supplier for years because of its reliability. “We use this particular company because of its fast deliveries and because there are discount rates for high schools,” Maggio said. In fact, Bio Corporation ships the animals in individually wrapped packages, each filled with nontoxic preservatives to prevent the specimens from decaying. The company guarantees that its products last a year without decaying. The preservation process, however, is uniquely different for each specimen. “The general process involves acquiring the animals and then processing them. However, each animal has a different process [of preservation]. For example, frogs are obtained from the food market and are injected with latex, followed by embalming fluid. Grasshoppers, however, are obtained from farmers in the south and are placed in a bucket with preservative fluids,” a company representative said. After the animal dissections finish, the specimens are disposed of in black garbage bag.
Despite the educational benefits of animal dissections, they also create many ethical issues. According to Bio Corporation, the company sometimes receives phone calls from upset students because of the specimens the organization carries. “Every so often, we get calls from students who are disturbed by what they’ve seen in our catalogue. However, we try to explain to them that the specimens we carry are not put down for us. Instead, these animals were either headed for the trash, or legally sold to us for purely scientific purposes,” a company representative said in an e-mail interview.
The biology department also faces these concerns. During the fetal pig dissection, one student could not touch the specimen because it was against Muslim religion. “I would’ve preferred a different animal, but the conflict was minimized because each lab group needed a recorder who would not dissect and touch the pig. I was the recorder. Some conflict arose when I had to wash the scalpel and other instruments that had pig blood on it; even though I was wearing gloves, it was very uncomfortable,” sophomore Armani Khan said.
Another dilemma that arose with lab dissections involved students who were vegetarians or vegans and felt uncomfortable touching the animals used in the lab. In most cases, such students were excused from lab and were presented with an alternative writing and reading exercise from the textbook. Many, however, overcame their eating habits and participated in the lab dissections. “I’m a vegetarian,” sophomore Girish Jayant said. “But I’m very interested in the biology fields, and I understand that animal dissections play an imperative role in understanding how biology works. I think of animal dissections as an act done for a purely scientific reason: in order to understand anatomy and the functions of biological systems—and this is the reason why animal dissections are so crucial to the science curriculum.”
Dr. Gastel acknowledges these conflicts but doesn’t consider them a problem. “For students who are repulsed by the idea, I would advise them to ask themselves: ‘Will I get something out of the experience?’ My answer is always ‘yes,’ because I guarantee that every student takes something valuable from the experience. Even for those who aren’t into biology, dissections teach transferable skills such as fine motor skills and observational skills,” Dr. Gastel said.