Salamanders and other amphibians (i.e frogs) are often used for dissections. Dissection continues today as much as (if not more than) it did 50 years ago (Hart, Wood, & Hart, 2008). Globally, the number of amphibians used in classroom dissections is unknown; however, the Johns Hopkins University Center for Alternatives to Animal Testing has estimated that 6 million vertebrate animals are dissected in U.S high schools each year, well over half of which are believed to be amphibians. Salamander species that are commonly used for dissections include the Axolotl (Ambystoma mexicanum), the Tiger Salamander (Ambystoma tigrinum), and the Mudpuppy (Necturus maculosus).
Using salamanders and other amphibians for dissections is both an animal cruelty and conservation issue. It is also unnecessary.
Conservation and Environmental Concerns
Animals used for dissections are predominantly taken from the wild. This further contributes to the decline in salamanders and other amphibians. The harvesting of amphibians from the wild also upsets the balance of local eco-systems.
Furthermore, it is not just the harvesting of live animals that is cause for concern. The preservation and discarding of dead animal specimens in classrooms carries additional environmental risks. Toxic chemicals such as formaldehyde or formalin preserve millions of animals each year. The Environmental Protection Agency has designated formaldehyde as “a hazardous air pollutant, water pollutant, and waste constituent.” The scope of the toxic-chemical waste generated by the disposal of dissection specimens makes the practice a serious threat for the environment and various natural habitats. When amphibians are harvested they get moved via humans from one location to another. This action, compounded with the risk of escaped captives after capture, spreads infectious diseases from one population to another. This could also introduce disease to previously healthy populations. Captive-reared amphibians also often carry disease, if they escape they too pose the risk of spreading infection. The moving of animals from one population to another can also be a way for invasive species to be introduced into non-native eco-systems. Dr. Whit Gibbons and ten coauthors of a study in Bioscience identified six principal threats contributing to the decline in reptiles/amphibians. The study listed the introduction of invasive species (which can happen via the trade in dissection animals) as the most serious of threats aside from the destruction and degradation of natural habitat.
Animal Cruelty Issues
According to the New England Anti-Vivisection Society, amphibians captured for dissection can be shipped live, often crammed in small cages, with no temperature regulation, food, or water. Common methods of killing of animals for dissection include suffocation, drowning, electrocution, gas chambers, or euthanasia. Past undercover video footage of supply companies has exposed that some animals are still alive as they are pumped full of formaldehyde or other preservatives. The U.S Animal Welfare Act does not include ”cold-blooded animals”, and therefore, salamanders and frogs have no federal protection.
Even captive-reared species are unethical, as the animals are raised solely to be killed. Salamanders are vertebrate animals that are sentient beings (just like mammals), and are fully capable of experiencing pain and suffering. This is known through the presence of nociceptors and a Central Nervous System (CNS), and the connection of nociceptors to the CNS. Furthermore, according to L.K Machin (1999 & 2001), amphibians have shown behavioral responses to pain, and have shown responses to pain-killers. In 2009 Animal welfare investigators reported that the Oakton Community College anatomy and physiology course used dozens of salamanders. These were dissected while they were still alive so students could watch their working organs before they were killed. This is a barbaric example of animal cruelty.
What Teachers Can Do
Due to the many negative aspects of dissections, teachers are strongly encouraged not to utilize these for lessons, but instead choose an alternative. These include computerized virtual dissections, anatomical models, films, websites, and plastinated specimens. According to Marge Peppercorn, a Harvard-trained physician, “Comparative studies have shown time and again that alternatives to dissection, from computer programs to models that are more realistic than formalin-fixed ‘specimens’- are as educationally effective, and in most cases more so, than animal dissection. If medical and veterinary schools are rapidly replacing animals with alternatives, why shouldn’t this also be happening at the high school level?” Furthermore, dissections are also insignificant to these alternatives as deceased specimens show dead organs which are often distorted. As such they do not display body function or complex systems. The annual purchase of dissection specimens is also costly, and this depletes funds for other education needs.
A list of alternatives can be found here.
Animalearn is the largest lending library of humane science products in the United States. Animalearn loans out a variety of frog dissection software as well as realistic models. Visit their website here.
Should educators decide to use dissections in their teaching arsenals, they should be respectful to the fact that many students are uncomfortable and unwilling to participate in dissections for personal, ethical, or environmental reasons. Teachers should provide students an alternative choice that gives them the right to opt out of dissection (without negative consequences). and use another method instead.
What Students Can Do
Students who are concerned over the ethical and environmental issues surrounding dissection are encouraged to ask for an alternative. For secondary/high school students, it is recommended that they find out about the dissection policies and alternatives when they begin their courses. This will give students some time to organize themselves to request an alternative. Below is a sample letter that can be presented to teachers/school boards outlining the issue.
Dear [teacher/school board]
After careful consideration, I have made the choice not to take part in the dissection of any amphibians and request an alternative assignment with the use of computerized virtual dissections, anatomical models, films, websites, and/or plastinated specimens. My decision is based on the fact that dissection contributes to negative effects on the ecosystem as amphibians are harvested from the wild. This is a serious conservation concern as it depletes wild populations, and spreads diseases when animals are unnaturally displaced. Even if the animals are captive-bred, I do not feel it is ethical to use amphibians that are reared purely to be killed when several alternatives exist. I hope you will give me the opportunity to show you that with the alternatives mentioned above, I can complete all assignments with an above satisfactory understanding and performance.
Students who are entering post secondary education (college/university) are encouraged to correspond with their institutes of interest to find out about their dissection policies and if alternative methods are allowed. For those that do not allow for alternatives to be used, students are encouraged to enrol elsewhere. Furthermore, students should voice this desire to find another education centre to the colleges/universities that will not allow for humane alternatives to be used. If schools learn that students are turned away by their archaic policies, they may re-think them! Along with the above letter, at the request of students Save The Salamanders is also able to provide teachers with additional information on the negative aspects of dissection and share more insights on humane alternatives and resources. Students who are interested in this support can inquire here.