All About Animals: The Issues (Ages 16-18): Animals in Science (Conscientious Objecting)

Much of the dissection that once took place in British schools is long gone but a few teachers do still ask their pupils to either take part or to watch while others dissect. For many students this is unethical and it may discourage them from pursuing a career in science. With so many alternatives available and with veterinary students qualifying without harming a single animal, there is no need to harm animals at any stage, no matter the career path you are planning to take.

Teachers who pressure students into taking part in these experiments may be causing more harm than they know. With more than 25 years of experience in her field, Theo Capaldo is an American psychologist who has studied trauma caused by forced dissection in education. She asks, “Why do people remember high school dissection and forget language and history?” She asserts that it is because of the trauma involved and that “[f]orced dissection thwarts education – the student becomes traumatised and learns less”.

Capaldo says that students often cope in one of the following three ways:

  1. Withdrawal: The “fight or flight” impetus kicks in, and when they feel unable to fight the establishment, students leave their courses.
  2. Disassociation: Students may participate in the class but withdraw internally as they become desensitised to the suffering they are causing. These students often say, “It was the only way I could get through”.
  3. Avoidance: This may mean altering one’s course at university or changing one’s whole career path. We are losing strong, compassionate people in science as those with moral convictions leave in droves.

A Better Way

There are many ways to teach medicine up to and including University level without harming a single animal, and more and more professors and teachers around the world are choosing these methods. Models, simulators, computerised mannequins, films, interactive video and multimedia computer simulations are all becoming increasingly popular – for good reasons. In addition to being the ethical choice, these techniques enable students to repeat exercises and learn at their own pace.

A new veterinary school in Southern California recruited veterinary professor Lara Rasmussen to develop and direct its surgery and clinical-skills program. She has developed a programme that does not harm animals because she knows that repetition is extremely important for furthering education, and exercises using animals cannot be repeated.

Students can also use self-experimentation, human cadavers and ethically sourced tissues. Veterinary students may also use animals in a clinical setting, working with a qualified vet and learning “on the job” with animals who need treatment or are undergoing spaying or neutering. It is also possible to use ethically sourced animals, such as those who died naturally or were euthanised for good medical reasons.

So there is no need to change your career plans because you don’t want to harm animals in your education. There is no denying you may have to do battle to reach your goal but you may just change the protocol at your school or University if you remain committed to your principles.

Conscientious Objectors

Case Study 1: Thales Trez
Thales Trez is a biological sciences graduate from the University of Santa Catarina in Brazil. Throughout his course, he regularly questioned the use of animals. As a result of his protests, the majority of the university’s laboratory animal practices have been replaced with other methods, and in other areas, there has been a radical reduction in the number of animals used.

His protest started when he refused to use animals in a cell biology class. The animal was killed anyway. In a human physiology class, he was supposed to kill a dog, and again, he refused. The professor told him, “If you want to be a scientist, you have to choose between rational thinking and an emotional response”. Thales worked to educate fellow students, and out of 34 students, only four agreed to kill the dog. In class, the dog recovered from the anaesthetic while his chest was still open, shocking the students who did take part. Before another dog could suffer the same fate, Thales entered the lab and took the dog to safety. Charged with theft of public property, he argued his case on ethical grounds, and his “punishment” was to promote three debates about animal experiments. Because of Thales’ courage, the dog intended for the next semester’s practical lesson was replaced with videos.

Case Study 2: Andrew Knight
Andrew graduated from Western Australia’s Murdoch University, where he studied veterinary medicine. In his first year, he refused to dissect freshly killed rats but was poorly prepared for the battle ahead. Academics were hostile and refused to provide alternatives. The following year, his boycott led to the cancellation of the entire lab, but he was given grave warnings and lost grades.

Through research, Andrew found many scientific studies that proved competence among ethical students. He sought legal advice and returned for his second year, during which sheep, toads and rats were being used. The worst experiments – involving injecting drugs, blocking arteries, cutting nerves, inhalation and suffocation – were in physiology class. He refused to participate and lost another grade.

This time, worried about bad publicity following Andrew’s complaint to the Equal Opportunities Commission, the University caved in. His research into alternatives for physiology labs led to the cancellation of all lab classes.

Rather than take part in labs, he and his classmates had to provide their own work at shelters and clinics. They conducted supervised sterilisation of real patients in real situations and wrote reports.

Andrew says, “We had depth and breadth in our studies. Jointly, we sterilised 45 dogs and cats, including 21 spays, giving us five times the surgical experience that others had. We spent more time in clinics and participated in many interesting cases.” He calls their education a “resounding success” and believes that they had the most realistic training available.

If you are keen to progress in biological, medical or veterinary science but feel that experimenting on animals is unjustifiable take heart!

What You Can Do

  • Speak to your class teacher and explain calmly and rationally your objections.
  • If that does not yield a satisfactory outcome, speak to the Head of Department or your Head Teacher. Be persistent but remain calm.
  • Educate yourself. Visit the Interniche Web site at to learn about non-animal methods and buy a copy of the book From Guinea Pig to Computer Mouse.
  • Talk to other students and encourage them to join you as a conscientious objector.
  • Do not walk out on the course. Society needs caring, ethical people in science.
  • Be brave, stay strong and know that one person can make a world of difference.

Further information is available from: