By Starla Pointer • Staff Writer • 

Cat lovers seek end of dissections in high school advanced biology

They consider cat dissection inherently inhumane, saying it sends a message to children that it’s OK to disrespect animals. Using computer simulations would be more effective at teaching anatomy anyway, they said.

In addition, they raised concerns about the company that supplies the cats, saying they believe it obtains and kills animals in a cruel manner.

But three board members, who are in the medical profession, defended the practice.

They said dissection is an extremely valuable learning tool. And they noted AP biology is a high-level course limited to a small number of serious science students, most of whom are considering careers in human or animal health.

Board members agreed biology students should be able to opt out of dissecting an animal -- which is district policy -- and that the lessons should be conducted in a respectful manner. They also agreed the cats should be obtained from a reputable dealer that uses ethical practices, and want to make sure that’s true of Mac High’s supplier.

Tony Vicknair, director of secondary programs, said the district has been buying preserved animals from Carolina Biological. The company is a major supplier of science equipment and supplies to schools across the nation, he said.

The issue was first raised last fall by Antoinette Marcel of the Yamhill County Cat Coalition. The coalition was formed to address the feral and stray cat population and encourage people to spay and neuter their pets.

Marcel submitted a complaint and testified to the district’s Curriculum Review Committee.

But the committee decided to retain the practice, saying computer simulations would not “provide an authentic experience.” It noted that more than 90 percent of AP biology students have completed dissections in the last three years, with only 10 percent opting out.

According to Vicknair’s letter to Marcel, reporting the committee’s findings, it “felt that there was no correlation between dissection of preserved cats in the classroom and students achieving a more humane regard for cats.” It felt “students in the AP biology class at McMinnville High School are educated in safe, responsible and respectful practices in the lab setting.”

Marcel has filed an appeal with the school board that is set for hearing at 6 p.m. Monday, Jan. 28.

In light of that, she did not participate in Monday’s discussion. However, she said she was pleased to see other local cat lovers raise the issue.

About eight to 10 cat supporters sat through the first two hours of the board meeting, waiting for the public comment portion of the agenda. Five of them addressed the board when it reached that point in the meeting.

Linda Icard said her daughter, who did not take the advanced anatomy class, told her many students were traumatized by the dissections.

Tammy Gardner, who runs We Care Feline Rescue, argued that dissecting cats in high school leads young people to mistreat animals.

“This desensitizes children,” she said. She said enough cat abuse is prevalent enough without further encouragement in the school system.

Carrie Carlson, who has worked with schools and youth programs, also argued that dissection desensitizes children to animals.

She went on to read a letter from her husband, who was ill, calling the advanced biology practice “antiquated curriculum” that teaches students that “animals are disposible.” He suggested a class on responsible pet ownership, instead.

Christopher Dolman related a case in a California school in which students used their cell phones to photograph dissections, then shared the pictures with friends, accompanied by disrespectful comments.

“That’s not uncommon,” he said. “It worries me that it could happen here.”

Usually, the board doesn’t respond immediately to comments made during the public forum part of the meeting. When issues are raised, it may refer the matters to staff members, consider them for future agendas, or simply listen.

But several board members did respond to the cat supporters. While they decried the California photo case, they expressed support for the advanced anatomy curriculum.

Dr. Scott Gibson, a physician, spoke passionately about the value he found in dissecting both human and animal cadavers in his training. He said he had helped teach a nursing class involving human dissection and taken cow organs to schools to demonstrate anatomy.

“Computer programs don’t give you the full appreciation of the marvels of anatomy,” he said. “You don’t get the appreciation of the mammalian body with a computer program.”

Using animals for dissection in high school biology class is appropriate, Gibson said.

He said students must approach the cadavers with respect, however. “It’s not appropriate to treat animals with disrespect.”

In addition, he said, the specimens “absolutely should be obtained from an ethical company.” The school district should make sure that’s the case.

“I stand for the option of high school students to become involved in respectful exploration of important anatomy,” he said.

Drs. Tim Roberts, a dentist, and Scott Schieber, a physician, also recalled dissecting both human and cat cadavers in school.

“Nothing replaces actual exploration,” Roberts said. “It’s a totally appropriate class topic, especially in AP biology. For them to miss the opportunity would be a real shame.”

However, Roberts said he was concerned about the questions speakers raised about how the animals are obtained. And he called the photos one speaker distributed “disgusting.”

Schieber said he supports the animal dissection in advanced biology classes as well.

He does not believe it desensitizes young people to the needs and value of animals. “It can even strengthen respect for animals,” he said.

However, Schieber also called for making sure the animals are treated with respect and that the company that supplies them is operating ethically. He said he pledges to see that the practice is “done in a sensitive and humane way that discourages disrespectful behavior.”

“There’s a great value in this type of learning, in a 3-D, visual, tactile manner,” he said. “There’s no substitute for actual dissection.”

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