Animal Studies Bibliography

Barr, Garcia and Harold Herzog. 2000. Fetal pig: The high school dissection experience. Society and Animals 8(1): 53-69.
(Summarized by Haley Walker, Animal Studies Program, Michigan State University)

For this article, Gracia Barr and Harold Harzog performed a qualitative study observing a variety of fetal pig dissections being performed by high school students (53). The authors documented the ways in which the students responded to the dissection process and performed interviews with 17 of them about their feelings toward the experience (53). Judging upon their findings, the authors make a conclusion about the process of fetal pig dissection being performed in high schools. In the abstract, they write, “We argue that dissection remains a viable educational tool, but should be an optional rather than compulsory component of the curriculum” (53).

The authors begin writing the article by including historical details about dissection in schools. For example, the activity has been included as a part of biology classes since 1900. Additionally, about 75 to 80 percent of American children dissect at least one animal during their high school careers (53). There are several reasons outlined for why dissection has grown to be such an institutional requirement in schools. One of these includes the argument from biology teachers, which states that the process is helpful to learn animal anatomy (54). They describe it as a “hands-on,” educational experience (54). However, some believe that it is particularly cruel and traumatic (54). Perhaps due to the ethical battles over the practice of dissection, alternative models have been created. Most of these are based in computer, film or video (54). The authors point out that these can be particularly valuable to those who do not agree with or are severely affected by the actual dissection. Studies have reported that many of the alternative also offer similar learning or educational experiences. In one study performed by Balcombe, 11 students favored the alternative dissection experience to the traditional one (54).

Barr and Harzog were not the first to perform such a study of students’ feelings toward dissection. The article cites other earlier studies that proved mixed feelings of this practice. For example, one 1993-study cited showed that 27 percent of students had negative feelings while 30 percent had positive feelings and 38 percent had ambivalent feelings (55).

The authors of this report focused on interviews and observation to draw most of their conclusions. These observations and interviews took place in a high school biology course in rural North Carolina (56). Barr and Harzog made note that high school students usually have a more advanced point of view on this topic than middle school students (55). Most of the students being observed and interviewed for this study were from the 12th grade (56). Additionally, this was a requirement for this class (56). The one option that they did have was whether or not to wear latex gloves during the procedure (56). Eleven of the students said that they never wore the gloves (63).

In addition to the students, the researchers examined the feelings of the professor of the biology class. They concluded that his aura and perspective on dissection helped to “legitimate” the use of fetal pigs for educational purposes (56).

Finally, Barr and Herzog asked the students about whether or not the experience helped them to define what kind of career they might want to enter into (65). Some said that it helped them solidify decisions to move toward a science or medical career, and some were swayed in the opposite way.

Final points were made in the discussion section of this article. The authors acknowledge again that 12 of the students had positive responses, and 5 had negative ones (66). However, they noted that those that did have more negative experiences still recognized the value in the activity. They make several suggestions after conducting this ethnographic research. They state that dissection should primarily be for high school students, since it is still quite an “ordeal” for many (67).

The limitations to the research presented in this article is that it does not take into account whether or not dissection can make larger changes, such as those that would influence a person to have other “ethical” thoughts or make changes toward their views on other animal species. In other words, the research cannot be discussed in broader contexts of animal ethics discussions. The authors suggest that this will need more research.


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