Countless mammals, birds, fish, and amphibians are used for educational purposes in science courses at all levels across North America. The most common educational activity is dissection of animal cadavers, but university students also conduct experiments and procedures on live animals in psychology and biology courses, and in veterinary training. Use of live animals for redundant demonstration purposes continues in violation of Canadian Council on Animal Care policy which states that: “Painful experiments or multiple invasive procedures on individual animals, conducted solely for the instruction of students in the classroom, or for the demonstration of established scientific knowledge, cannot be justified” (CCAC 1989). Unfortunately there is no policy that governs the treatment of animals who are killed before they are purchased by educational institutions.
In recent decades animal advocates (especially the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine) have been enormously successful in eliminating the use of live animals in medical school training (including advanced trauma, emergency and paramedic training). Queen’s, like 99% of North American medical schools, has shifted to modern and effective alternatives such as mannequins, simulators and models. That’s the good news.
Unfortunately, there has been far less reform in the area of life sciences education. Students are still routinely confronted with dissection classes that use frogs, salamanders, turtles, rats, pigeons, fish, fetal pigs, cats, cow parts, and many other animals. Most of these animals are purchased from biological supply companies which acquire animals from the agriculture industry, capture them from the wild, kidnap strays, or engage in purpose breeding. Exposés of this industry have demonstrated the terrible suffering inflicted on animals before they are killed and prepped for school use (e.g. frogs or turtles jam-packed into crowded containers without temperature control, food or water). Moreover, the capture of millions of amphibians every year contributes to the destruction of fragile ecosystems. And formaldehyde, used to preserve dissection animals, is a human carcinogen, and a hazardous waste.
This suffering and ecological devastation is completely unnecessary. Countless comparative studies have demonstrated that alternatives to dissection, such as computer simulations, video, and plastic models are as effective as, or in most cases pedagogically superior to, dissection. They are also cheaper over time. This is widely acknowledged by science educators, who allow students to use alternatives upon request. (Students in Ontario and many other jurisdictions have the right to opt out of dissection.) Since all scientific research and education organizations, including Queen’s, are committed to replacing animals with alternatives whenever possible, the continued use of animals for dissection stands in direct violation of the 3Rs principle (to reduce, refine, replace use of animals). Countries with more enlightened attitudes towards animals, like India, have banned dissection at all levels of education.
It is completely within Queen’s power to end the practice of dissection. The only barriers are inertia; instructors who are given inadequate time and resources to retrain, or who are set in their ways (and cling to prejudices about the need for ‘hands on’ learning on animal cadavers over countless studies which demonstrate otherwise); vested economic interests of biological supply companies (see this article on the big business of supplying animals for science); administrators who refuse to invest in alternatives and to reeducate professors; animal researchers who know that de-sensitizing students via dissection is the first step to de-sensitizing them to the use of live animals for invasive research.
The harming and killing of animals for educational purposes has a human cost as well. There is growing evidence that many students are deeply disturbed by participating in dissections and training involving harmful procedures on live animals. Often they are not aware of their right to opt-out of dissection and animal research. Overall, there is a culture of fear and intimidation surrounding questions of animal use across university campuses, which leads many students to remain silent and proceed with practices they are ethically opposed to, or to quietly change majors. Of particular concern is mounting evidence that disproportionate numbers of women and aboriginal students drop out of science because they are ethically conflicted by callous indifference to animal lives. They get the message that they are ‘not cut out for science’, and science, and society, are poorer for their loss. QAD aims to lift this veil of silence and create a safe environment for students to express their opinion and make compassionate choices without fear of academic reprisal or ostracism. We are opposed to educational methods that promote desensitization, detachment, and indifference to animal suffering, and instead support scientific learning based on respect, compassion, and empathy for animals.
Our long-term goal:
1) Replacement, with non-animal alternatives, of all uses of animal cadavers for dissection and all uses of live animals for deprivational, invasive, harmful, and/or lethal educational and training procedures in the health and life sciences at Queen’s.
Our short-term goals:
1) Transparent reporting regarding the use of living and dead animals for educational purposes. This would include, for example, the requirement that Queen’s publish annual reports that list all the courses at the undergraduate and graduate levels that require students to conduct research on animal cadavers or live animals, the types of animals used, the sources from which the animals are obtained, the procedures conducted on the animals. Also listed should be the courses that actively encourage, and make accessible, the use of alternatives.
2) A policy requiring that all students in every course using animals be properly informed of their right to opt-out, without academic penalty, of conducting (or observing) any procedures on living or dead animals.
3) The creation of a transition budget with sufficient funds to purchase alternative teaching technologies, and to conduct training courses for professors and lab instructors.