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Replacing animal dissections with computer simulations in high school biology classrooms at first sounds like an idea that deserves a fair hearing.
But the logic employed by one proponent of this idea doesn't hold up.
A recent donation to Battery Creek High School for the purchase of cat cadavers outraged a Beaufort resident and Humane Association of the Lowcountry member. Kate Zalusky launched an online petition to ban the practice and wrote an email of protest to the Beaufort County School District. In it, Zalusky argued that it is traumatic for students to inspect the inner workings of a "companion animal" and that the practice is tantamount to endorsing cruelty.
The teacher's response cut to the point: "The reason we chose the particular vertebrate (cat) is to give the students an overall understanding of the human body," Jeri Williams said. "The structures of a cat are very closely related to a human, and the size of the cat allows students to see the structures more vividly."
State standards also support the use of dissection in middle and high school science instruction, requiring students to demonstrate an understanding of scientific inquiry and an ability to handle forceps, scissors and preserved specimens, said Martha Sette of the Battery Creek science department.
That seems reasonable.
No doubt, some students are made queasy by the mere thought of dissection, but it is not at all clear that they are made particularly more so by the thought of dissecting a cat, as Zalusky asserts. After all, there is a big difference between cutting open an animal commonly kept as a household pet and cutting open your household pet.
And although high school students are not always equipped with the same emotional or intellectual capacities as aspiring doctors, Williams teaches a college-preparatory class. Presumably, her students can understand dissection for what it is -- a clinical exercise. The class is an elective. Students are informed dissections will be involved and can opt for similar courses that don't require dissection.
The idea that this amounts to an endorsement of cruelty is wrong: The students aren't euthanizing the cats themselves, and they aren't torturing them. The specimens are commercially prepared and ordered through a biological supply company.
There is no reason to eliminate it so long as it continues under the tight ethical and educational controls already in place.