Harvest of Shame

Dissection’s Deadly Toll Hits Frogs Hardest

For most high school students, dissecting a formaldehyde-soaked frog is an educational rite of passage. But the practice has decimated the population of frogs and other wild-caught animals, and more and more kids are refusing to do it. “I don’t think it’s right to kill animals,” says Amanda Swann, a Missouri eighth grader who belongs to the Connecticut-based Kids in Nature’s Defense. In Santa Monica, California, middle school kids formed their own group, Students for the Rights of Animals, and took their protest against dissection right to the school principal.

Photo: Animalearn

Approximately 10 to 12 million animals are killed for dissection exercises every year in the United States, says Dr. Jonathan Balcombe, an associate director of education at the Humane Society of the U.S. (HSUS). “Of these animals, I estimate that 99 percent are wild caught,” says Balcombe.

Commonly dissected wild-caught animals include seven million vertebrates like frogs, turtles and sharks, and countless invertebrates like grasshoppers, crayfish and starfish. Other frequently dissected animals include earthworms, which can be economically farmed; fetal pigs, a byproduct of slaughterhouses; and dogs and cats, which are often purchased from animal shelters, or stolen. In all, more than 170 species of nonhuman animals are dissected in American classrooms.

The cutting open of dead organisms for educational study, dissection has been taught in the U.S. for more than 150 years. The use of frogs as a classroom mainstay began more than 50 years ago, says Dr. F. Barbara Orlans, a physiologist at Georgetown University. Today, it is estimated that approximately 75 to 80 percent of the nation’s four million high school students will dissect at least one animal, and the practice is even moving into elementary schools.

Bullfrogs and leopard frogs are the main victims. Since biological supply companies have been unable to breed frogs in a cost-effective manner, they rely upon an international network of harvesters and distributors for their wares. Harvesters often capture frogs when the animals are crossing fields. The harvesters shuffle through the grass, causing their prey to move, then capture them by hand or with specially-adapted nets.

The massive collecting of frogs has depleted many local populations, leading some states—and some countries—to outlaw their commercial harvesting. It’s illegal to hunt certain species of frogs for dissection in Canada, Michigan and Wisconsin. In Alberta, Canada, the northern leopard frog became so rare that the government distributed “Wanted” posters asking, “Have you seen this frog?” Today, most frogs captured for dissection here are collected in the U.S., in Canada, in Mexico’s coastal plains, and as far away as Africa and Indonesia.

The harvesting has contributed to some species’ precipitous population decline. Additional factors include habitat loss, manmade pollution, and humans’ appetite for frogs’ legs. Unfortunately, the frogs’ slow demise doesn’t get the media attention accorded to the plight of charismatic wild animals like elephants and tigers.

But the effects may be long-lasting. Froglog, a publication of the international Union for the Conservation of Nature, notes the plight of the Canadian bullfrog, millions of which were sold to U.S. biological supply houses until die-offs were first noted in 1975. “In the middle 1970s, the famous Manitoba frog holes were empty, and despite an eight-year ban on picking frogs, their numbers have not much increased,” the magazine says.

The environmental cost includes disruption of the local food chain, too. “Frogs are a keystone species,” says Balcome. “Other organisms feed on them and they feed on other organisms. Remove the frogs from the equation and it’s going to knock a link out of the food chain, or seriously weaken it.”

Animal dissection is, however, a deeply entrenched and well-defended component of biology education. “We take a strong pro-dissection stance,” says Wayne Carley, executive director of the influential National Association of Biology Teachers (NABT). The NABT’s position paper on the use of animals in biology asserts that “no alternative can substitute for the actual experience of dissection,” and it urges teachers to be aware of the limitations of alternatives.

Fortunately, the number of frog-friendly alternatives to animal dissection has skyrocketed this decade. Typically, humane alternatives include videotapes, three-dimensional anatomical models, pictorial atlases, and interactive CD-ROMs. Digital Frog teaches frog anatomy and dissection; its Ecology Module also has thousands of facts about animal behavior, diversity and life cycles. This CD-ROM and hundreds of other alternatives are described in Beyond Dissection: Innovative Tools for Biology Education, a comprehensive catalog of humane choices available from the Ethical Science Education Coalition in Boston.

Besides saving countless animal lives, alternatives are also more cost-effective, claim proponents. According to HSUS, switching from bullfrog dissections to alternatives saves a high school a total of $379.25 over a three-year period. In addition, many of the alternatives, unlike live specimens, offer the ecological advantage of being reusable. HSUS and other animal protection groups actually offer these non-lethal materials in a free or nominal cost loan program.

During the last decade, an unprecedented number of high school students have objected to animal dissection, and California, Florida, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island have enacted legislation protecting a student’s right to forgo it. For students troubled by the legal implications of taking such a stand, there’s Vivisection and Dissection in the Classroom: A Guide to Conscientious Objection by Gary Francione and Anna Charlton.