COSTA MESA – Science classes in the Newport-Mesa Unified School District have halted cat dissections this year after animal-rights activists complained that a group of high school students posted crude, graphic photos of cat carcasses to Facebook.
District officials have touted the decision as a move toward integrating more all-digital dissection simulations into the science curriculum.
But animal-rights activists' reactions have been mixed, with some praising the move as a first step forward and others lamenting that students will continue to dissect other animals.
"It's a balanced approach we're taking," said Steve McLaughlin, Newport-Mesa Unified's director of secondary curriculum and instruction. "We want to be sensitive to both sides of the conversation, and we appreciate partners who come to the table with solutions."
The fervor erupted in June, when a national animal-rights group learned that students at Newport Beach's Newport Harbor High School had posed with cat carcasses during class and published the photos on Facebook. The photos and accompanying comments showed the teens' lack of respect for animals, activists said, as well as teachers' failure to properly monitor the dissection labs.
"What happened at Newport Harbor is just an unfortunate consequence of conveying to young people that animal lives are worthless," said Dr. John Pippin, academic affairs director for the Washington, D.C.-based Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. "It's teaching young people at an impressionable age that this is OK, that killing animals and using their bodies to study things is OK."
In one Facebook photo, a female student could be seen holding up a cat carcass while she grinned with her tongue out, gesturing toward the cat.
"Ewwww ... u look like ur trying to lick it," a student commented in response to the photo.
Other photo comments included: "Someone put down Puss in Boots" and "He looks like super man (sic) with his skin cape and flying arms!"
TEACHERS AGREE TO CHANGE
McLaughlin said that over the past few months, administrators at the district's four main high schools led campus discussions with science teachers about how to address what he called "missteps and misuse by some of the kids" at Newport Harbor High in spring.
Science teachers across the district agreed by the end of September to stop dissecting cats "through a consensus," McLaughlin said.
In response, the animal-rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has pledged to fully fund the start-up costs of switching to an all-digital dissection simulation lab, said Justin Goodman, associate director for PETA's laboratory investigations in Washington.
"Any time a school is making a decision to modernize their curriculum and save animals, we're happy to make that happen," Goodman said. "Every animal's life matters to us."
Goodman said PETA viewed Newport-Mesa's move in a positive light, even though other animals will continue to be dissected.
"They were asked to end all dissections by others, but frankly we haven't discussed that with them," Goodman said. "It does concern us ... but once a teacher or group of teachers sees the benefit of using the software, they frequently decide to roll out the program more broadly."
McLaughlin said he could not immediately provide a list of the other animals that Newport-Mesa high school and middle school students will dissect, but confirmed earthworms were still among the dissection labs.
Newport Harbor High English teacher Karen Coyne, who brought the cat-carcass Facebook photos to the physician group's attention in June, said she was glad the district had taken some action, but disappointed the decision was limited.
"It's certainly better for the cats, and at least it's gotten people to discuss this issue more," said Coyne, faculty adviser to the animal-centered Compassion in Action student club. "I just wish they could see that dissection really is an archaic practice and unnecessary, and we need to teach these kids compassion toward these helpless beings."
DIGITAL PROGRAMS ENHANCING, NOT REPLACING
The vast majority of science teachers still use animal dissections in their classes, although they are increasingly integrating digital tools into the dissection experience, said Dean Gilbert, science coordinator for the Orange County Department of Education.
"Teachers are not choosing necessarily to replace dissections, but rather to enhance them with software," said Gilbert, a former science teacher.
Gilbert said most science educators agree that simulations do not have the same impact on students as the hands-on experience of a dissection: "It can't be replaced," he said.
Capistrano Unified, for example, uses a smattering of animal dissection labs in the upper elementary grades and seventh grade. By high school, students are dissecting a variety of animals, from frogs to pigs to sharks to bluegill fish, said district spokesman Marcus Walton.
"The district supports good curriculum that is appropriate for the students," said Walton.
Even so, schools are required by law to provide an alternative lesson for any student who requests not to participate.
And, as animal-rights activists point out, groups such as the National Association of Biology Teachers have endorsed such alternative lessons as important "adjuncts" to the dissections themselves.
The recent victory in Newport-Mesa aside, local animal-rights activists say their battles to stop dissections in schools have historically been won in individual classrooms.
Orange County People for Animals, which has spent 25 years doing letter-writing campaigns and campus protests that target local schools and colleges, has persuaded at least 20 local public-school teachers to stop all animal dissections in their classrooms, said the group's founder, Ava Park.
Attorney Tina Locklear, president of O.C. People for Animals, said she hoped the Newport-Mesa decision would spur action on a larger scale.
"I would expect when young people and their parents hear that there is an alternative that gets them just as good a science experience, they'll ask for it in their schools," Locklear said.
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