Should a student be chopping a defenceless animal on a dissection tray as early as in 10th grade when alternatives like real-life “Jerry” dog or “Fluffy” cat and other sophisticated simulated models are available?

“Not really, at least when the students are not keen to pursue a scientific-based curriculum. Yet, sadly they are forced to chop a defenceless worm and frog under a threat of a failed grade. This is unethical,” says Snehal Bhatt, an animal rights activist from Gujarat.

While frogs are the most commonly dissected animals in the pre-university level, other species used include cats, mice, rats, earthworms, dogs, rabbits, foetal pigs, and fish. Many are caught from the wild while some animals are procured from breeding facilities which cater to institutions and businesses that use animals in experiments, Ms. Bhatt adds.

Alternatives to animals in education are aplenty, says the founder trustee of the Gujarat Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (GSPCA). “Majority of medical schools in the U.S. including Harvard, Stanford, and Yale, have replaced their use of live animals in physiology, pharmacology, and surgical-training exercises with humane and effective non-animal teaching methods,” she points out. Also, an increasing number of veterinary schools have been able to employ similar alternatives, thereby saving the lives of countless animals, which in the past would have been killed for dissection.

However, India is yet to wake up to the killing of animals at the dissection tray. “If we are inflicting injury to animals during dissection, then we are not teaching students to respect life,” she says.

The government-led Committee for the Purpose of Supervision and Control of Experiments on Animals (CPCSEA) too has been deliberating on alternatives and working out modalities to introduce alternatives in basic or regulatory research and education.

“We have been writing to the UGC to promote alternatives at the school and college level where it is senseless, cruel and wasteful, especially at the high school level, but even more so for the non-science major in college. To support the process of replacement with alternatives, we have been distributing learning tools including sets of alternative CDs and DVDs including advanced anatomy software of the frog, dogfish, pigeon and earthworm, and several virtual physiology labs developed by InterNice,” says Anjani Kumar CPCSEA director.

Numerous school districts in the U.S. have enacted policies protecting students’ rights not to dissect and have provided computer models and sophisticated simulators, says a spokesman for Peta, an NGO for animal rights.

This type of simulation-based education would more accurately reflect what students will encounter when they get to medical school, since over 90 per cent of U.S. medical schools have abandoned the use of animals in their standard curricula, he says.

Ms. Bhatt, however feels that it is a long way to go before all science labs in India at the academic level can become animal-friendly. Inadequate funding for development of alternatives, lack of political will to make non-animal research a priority, reluctance of animal researchers to find alternatives because they view animal tests as ‘traditional’ are some of the constraints hindering complete replacement to animal tests.

Studies also suggest that exposing young people to animal dissection as “science” can foster a callousness towards animals and nature and even dissuade some from pursuing careers in science.

“Do we really want veterinarians, researchers and doctors who have been taught that living beings can be used and thrown away? Should animals be taken from the wild just to end up on the dissection tray or prepared for invasive experiments?” asks Nick Jukes of InterNICHE, which is trying to promote alternatives in academic institutions across the country. The organisation has developed real-life like fluffy cat and jerry dog with working lungs and pulse, designed to perform compressions, mouth-to-snout resuscitation, splinting and bandaging.