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Despite an existing tradition of humane education, the majority of animal use in education is harmful, and includes dissections for anatomy, surgical practice, and physiology and pharmacology experiments. Harmful animal use can be criticised on a number of grounds:

Animal suffering and ecological disruption

Firstly, animals suffer harm when restricted in their normal behaviour, when caused pain or killed. They suffer in capture and transport, when housed and bred in captivity, when killed for dissection and when subjected to experiments. Ecologically there is concern about diminishing wild populations of frogs, sharks and turtles which in some countries are taken from their habitats for use in education.

De facto lesson in ethics

The widespread avoidance of discussions on the ethics of animal use and alternatives within the life sciences provides, according to biologist Prof George Russell of Adelphi University, a de facto lesson in ethics: that ethical concerns do not matter. The hidden curriculum teaches that life is cheap and animals can be considered disposable tools. And when science sees itself as existing in an ethical vacuum, or gives messages like these, the consequences for science and for society can be very serious.

Infringement of civil liberties

Many students are given no choice whether to participate in harmful animal use for their practical work, and have no formal right to object. Alternatives are often not provided, and there is no doubt that the prospect of compulsory harmful animal use puts off some students from even entering the life sciences. Some who do choose to enter may not know what is expected of them until the last minute, and many have been forced to change course or drop out through academic or psychological penalty. Such discrimination is an infringement of their civil liberties: all students should have the right to opt out of harmful animal use and have access to educationally-valid alternatives.

Loss to science

It is a significant loss to the professions that students don't enter or continue in the life sciences because of harmful animal use. It is bad for science in general and for humane research in particular through its discrimination against good scientists: those prepared to think critically, those familiar with alternative methods and their efficacy, and those who haven't already lost their respect for life. And it also increases the gender gap within science by discriminating against young women scientists: there is a sensitivity towards and respect for animals often shown by - but not exclusive to - women, which cannot be accommodated within the current framework.

"When I was studying I wasn't really sure whether I wanted to be a veterinarian or not. If they had forced me to do animal experiments it just wouldn't have been worth the cost, and I would have stopped. I think that if you do animal experiments you care less about animals, I think you will be acting differently towards other animals, and maybe towards people too. So I think it is harmful to do animal experiments - you are not as respectful towards animals as you should be." - Dr. Tannetje Koning, Veterinarian, Zeewolde, The Netherlands.


A recent study published in the Veterinary Record confirmed that veterinary students do become desensitised over the course of their education, and there is no doubt that harmful animal use contributes to this process. Such a change in a student has enormous consequences for them as individuals and for society as a whole. Australian vet student Andrew Knight writes:

"At the end of the experiments the sheep were killed by students by a drug overdose, before regaining consciousness. Students were instructed to open up the chest cavity to ensure the sheep would not come back to life. One of the stated aims was that students would develop a sense of responsibility for an animal under their care, and the academics maintained that the practicals were not desensitising. The farcical nature of these claims was demonstrated by the student who was thrilled to discover, upon placing her hand inside a sheep's chest cavity, that she could actually feel the animal's heart stop as it died."

Focussing on biology, George Russell wrote in the American Biology Teacher back in 1972 that:

"Experimentation of this kind can lead to a systematic and progressive crippling of one's capacity for feeling and produces changes of personality that, in my opinion, are noticeable even to someone with no formal training in psychology or psychiatry… Is it asking too much for biology teaching to try to awaken respect for life and to develop love and admiration for living things?"

Bad learning environment

Another criticism concerns pedagogics and the learning experience. Countless students have complained that they learned nothing from their animal practical work, that the experiment didn't work, and that they just wanted to get it over with. The stress associated with ethical conflict can create a very poor learning environment.

In contrast, there are around 30 published academic studies which show that in terms of academic performance, students using alternatives learn equally as well, and in some cases better, than those using traditional animal experiments. Biologist Dr Jonathan Balcombe, former Alternatives Adviser to InterNICHE, has summarised the findings of these studies. And in terms of quality and depth of education, harmful animal use as an approach is limited.


The majority of life science students will never use animals in their careers, suggesting that the current practice is of questionable relevance. For those who will use animals - veterinarians and some biologists, for example - the existence of courses across the world where alternatives are already in use is sufficient evidence that the older approaches are no longer needed.

"I built a course which would give good physiological knowledge and experience without using animal experiments. So to me the norm is the course without animal experiments, because they are not necessary. There are so many ways of demonstrating physiological principles that you do not need animal experiments." - Prof. Kerstin Lindholm-Kiessling, Dept. of Animal Physiology, University of Uppsala, Sweden.

Students are already graduating without the experience of harmful animal use, and may be much better prepared for the professions they are entering.

Financially wise?

Studies by the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and other groups have compared the cost of dissection to the use of alternatives, and found a considerable cost difference in favour of the alternatives. Computer alternatives may require a high initial investment if there is little existing hardware in a department, but the outlay is recovered over time. Buying the software alone is invariably cheaper than the costs associated with the regular purchase and housing of animals. And while the educational benefits of any investment in progressive alternatives are apparent immediately, a number of other benefits such as reduced student-teacher conflict, increased computer literacy, and an enhanced institutional reputation, can also follow.

Against spirit of legislation

The European Convention 123 states that in their basic university courses students should not use animals at all. The European Directive 86/609 states that alternatives should be used where they exist, though the letter of the legislation excludes education. Many national laws are similar in stating that alternatives should be used wherever possible, and there are international and national laws and conventions against discrimination. Some countries also have laws banning animal use at some levels of education, and laws or regulations protecting freedom of conscience and the right to conscientiously object. A growing number of institutions are incorporating Student Choice Policies into their regulations and providing quality alternatives for conscientiously objecting students, though some are replacing the harmful animal use entirely.