A Dilemma Case on "Animal Rights"

by Clyde Freeman Herreid
University at Buffalo, State University of New York

"And so if there are problems with registration, please see Ms. Lampier up here now. She'll be over in that corner," Professor Bill Torkey waved his hand to the right. "I'll be over here to handle all other questions that I may not have answered in my general discussion of the course. Remember labs don't start until next week. See you next Wednesday."

Torkey quickly straightened his notes and slipped them into the brown file folder and watched the chaos develop at the front of the large lecture hall. The first day of General Biology at the University. It was always the same. Three hundred young strained faces peering from dozens of rows into the lecture pit wondering what was going to happen here. They had heard the usual stories about the course. It's incredibly tough but rewarding if you worked your tail off. The lectures were exciting but the exams impossible. The labs were a mixed bag; some too simple, others ridiculous in what they demanded in the way of memorization, but there was one compensation - the teaching assistants were superb. Bill Torkey had a reputation among the graduate students for demanding excellence in their preparation for each lab session and he held long training sessions each Friday to work out problems that might develop during their teaching. He had even gotten University Honors students to volunteer to help the graduate students so that each of the fourteen lab sections had two teaching assistants.

The first class closed their books, scrapped their chairs back and began heading for the exits. Students with problems - there were always a lot the first day - headed for the front. The anxious types who were afraid of getting closed out of the class made a hurried scramble for Ms. Lampier, who implacably as ever, began the process of sorting problems and handing out signup sheets. Torkey looked at the swirling sea of faces about him clamoring for his attention and had one last thought before he turned to the individuals awaiting his attention. What an array of diversity in a public university of New York. How it had changed in his twenty-five years of teaching. Students from every conceivable culture were there sitting in his classroom: Chinese, Vietnamese, Japanese, Colombian, Russian, Iranian, African and Indian along with second and third generation Europeans. There were even one or two Native Americans in his class this year. The American classroom was incredible.

Then the questions came. "I have a conflict with the first exam. Can I arrange an alternate time?" "Can I change my lab from Mondays to Tuesdays?" "Do you have any more handouts?" "I haven't been able to buy the book, will this one do just as well?" "Should I ... Will you ... ? Can we ... ?" Torkey rapidly answered or delayed most of the questions that bubbled up from the forty students clustered about the lectern. He had timed it well, for Charles Sargent from the philosophy department had the classroom next and his students were coming in. His day was just beginning.

One last student remained for Torkey, a serious faced student he had seen before in one of his freshman honors seminars last semester. "Well, Mr. Ballard, what's on your mind?"

"I would like to speak to you about a serious conflict that I may have with some of the laboratories. I didn't want to cause any difficulties so I waited until the other people were gone. It's about the dissecting labs, I am philosophically opposed to them."

Bill Torkey sighed to himself as he realized that this would take more than a moment and said, "Come on over to my office so we can talk about this. Do you have a minute?"

After a brief stroll across campus, while they talked amiably about other matters, Sam Ballard sat in Bill's office.

"Let me see if I understand this, Sam. You don't want to dissect any animals because you're philosophically opposed to it?"

"Yes, I don't believe that I should be a party in the death of any animal."

"Why is that?"

"All animals have the right to be free of pain. And I don't think any one has the right to subjugate and exploit animals simply for their own end."

"Sam, this is a Biology course. You knew when you signed up that there was dissection involved. Why did you take this class? You could have taken physics, chemistry or geology to complete your science requirements."

"Well, I considered that. But I like biology. In fact, I am majoring in Environmental Studies and they require that I take this course in order to graduate. I don't have any choice."

"Sam, I agree with them. It's logical that you know something about animal anatomy and physiology if you are going to study Environmental Studies . In fact, I think every student should know the fundamentals of anatomy regardless of their major. It's part of becoming an educated person. And it sure doesn't make any more sense for a major in Environmental Studies to be allowed to bypass dissection than it does for someone who is a prevet or premed student. It's part of understanding the animal."

"But I plan to be a lawyer and specialize in environmental law. I don't see why I need to have the experience of working on a pickled dead animal which doesn't look anything like the real thing in order to pass this course or to graduate."

"Obviously, I don't agree with you. Nor for that matter does the Department of Environmental Studies. It is their requirement, not mine, that you take this course. So what do you suggest is the solution to this problem?"

"I'm not asking that you drop all of the dissection labs, although I think that is the correct thing to do. What I am asking is that I not be forced to dissect an animal. I would be happy to work on models, or look at videos or look at diagrams in textbooks to learn the material. I'll take the same tests as everyone else. I will be happy to do any extra work, a paper or project or anything. I just don't want to kill or cut up anything."

Bill Torkey leaned back in his chair listening. This wasn't his first student to challenge the time honored dissection approach to biology labs, but Sam Ballard was certainly his most serious student. Biology wasn't the same as it used to be. It was mostly cellular and molecular stuff today. Did students really have to dissect a frog, fetal pig, starfish, or earthworm to get a good education? What in the world was a lab about anyway? Most students hated it. There was nothing new to be discovered by poking around in a poorly preserved frog dripping with preservative. It had been done hundreds of thousands of times before. For what? Should he reevaluate his approach? What affect would his waiving this requirement for Sam have on the other students? What if some of them wanted other alternatives as well? What the devil should he do ? He had skirted this problem long enough.

This case, along with the author's commentary on it, appears in the Journal of College Science Teaching (1996)25:413-418.