Animal Justice Advocates at U.Va. petition to end animal dissections

Student group seeks support from the University community

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The fetal pig dissection is common in introductory biology labs.

Aisha Singh | Cavalier Daily

Founded in the spring of 2016, Animal Justice Advocates at the University has been working towards ending violence against animals throughout the Charlottesville community. Some of their current initiatives include prevention of animal use in experiments, dissections and entertainment and the creation of the Student Choice Policy, which allows students to opt-out of dissections. AJA’s End Dissection Initiative received support from Student Council’s Representative Body this past fall.  

AJA launched their End Dissection Initiative in spring 2018. As their first action, the AJA worked with Asst. Prof. of Biology Jessamyn Manson and the Biology Department to provide students the choice to opt out of dissections in BIOL 2200 Lab.

“When we decided to start our End Dissection Initiative in the beginning of Spring 2018, we thought that the first step in phasing out dissection should be the institution of a Student Choice Policy in all courses involving dissections,” Isabella Cifu, a fourth-year College student and co-president of AJA, said in an email to The Cavalier Daily. 

As the next phase in their initiative, AJA created a petition to cease animal dissections in all biology and psychology labs at the University. Published in September, AJA’s Petition — Cessation of Dissection at U.Va. — has so far gained about 570 supporters.

Mentioned in the petition, animal dissections further propagate exploitation of animals in the name of scientific advancement. Cifu explained, in email, this practice supports biological supply industries — which provide live and preserved animals — in their persecution of these animals. 

Contrarily, Manson and Asst. Prof. of Biology Mark Kopeny said that animals used in dissections at U.Va. are the by-product of other processes — the animals are not raised with the purpose of being dissected. According to Mason and Kopeny, fetal pigs used for dissections in BIOL 2200, for example, are obtained from female pigs slaughtered in the pork industries. These animals would typically be disposed.

Cifu further said in the petition that animals used as “educational tools” in schools, universities and medical testing promotes the idea that animals are insensitive to pain.

“Participating in this tradition perpetuates the false consciousness that it is morally acceptable and scientifically necessary to use animals this way and, moreover, that animals do not deserve moral consideration and do deserve the violence committed,” Cifu said.

As a solution, she urges the University to consider alternatives to dissections, such as Virtual Reality software and sophisticated 3D models of the animal’s body. VR softwares such as Bioleap Dissection Alternatives and the Science Bank from Animalearn allow students to virtually dissect and explore an animal’s body through a computer. 

According to Cifu, students who use these software programs will develop skills to utilize VR software that is becoming increasingly valuable in today’s digitalized society. Cifu also said VR offers “the ability to manipulate the virtual model in ways not possible with a dead animal’s body, such as zoom, layering, vascular mapping, differentiating tissue which would provide a much more in-depth learning experience.”

Although these alternative methods can be effective learning tools, Manson said dissections are more engaging. She referenced Lombardi’s Education Study, a research study on students’ dissection experiences, to explain how students who participated in both dissections and alternative methods enjoyed the experience of dissecting animals regardless of their academic performance. 

Prof. George Bloom, chair of the Biology Department, said that dissections are an engaging means of learning. 

This fall, Bloom and faculty members of the Biology Department met with a representative from the Center for Comparative Medicine, a University initiative that promotes biomedical research and teaching that uses laboratory animals. Attendees of the meeting discussed alternative methods to dissections, such as models and virtual reality softwares in an attempt to potentially replace dissections. 

“There was a wide consensus that it’s possible in theory to substitute dissections in undergraduate classes to some sort of digital teaching tool,” Bloom said. 

However, from the center’s research, “they found nothing that came remotely close to substituting for the dissections as it stands,” Bloom said.

According to Bloom, many students enjoy dissections, so the Biology Department would not like to deprive them of that opportunity without any proper replacements. However, Bloom said the Biology Department would be open to exploring and considering any new software or technology in the market to replace dissection if brought to their attention. 

The initial cost of some VR softwares would be expensive, according to Cifu. She said over time, though, the University would save money by not having to purchase “single-use specimens” every semester.

To further their initiative, the AJA worked with third-year College student Ellie Brasacchio, chair of the Student Council Representative Body, and fourth-year College student and Student Council Representative Brian Cameron to gain Student Council’s support for ending dissections.

Cameron supported a resolution on the topic and the implementation of the policies within it.

“I hope that all representatives, regardless of their individual opinions on dissection, can get behind the idea of giving students more freedom to pursue an education in line with their own values,” Cameron said in an email.

The Student Council Representative Body initially voted to table a resolution on Oct. 2, but decided to support the Gradual Cessation of Dissection Initiative on Oct. 16. 

Cifu appreciates the Student Council Representative Body’s support, but she believes the AJA’s initial resolution was greatly modified. 

“We regret how much our original resolution was watered down, from a resolution stating that Student Council supports the abolition of dissection at UVa and denounces violence committed against both humans and animals, to one that, though still strictly animal-rights and abolition-based, focuses more on the gradual phasing-out of dissection,” Cifu said in an email. 

Despite the changes to the initial resolution, Cifu plans to implement the End Dissection Initiative at U.Va. by offering alternatives and potentially starting a dissection-free pilot program. 

“We … are continuing to work on incremental steps, which will phase-out dissection and replace it with ethical alternatives,” Cifu said. “This includes establishing department-wide Student Choice Policies which provide adequate alternatives, which are respectful of students ethical, moral, and religious beliefs; dissection-free pilot courses, in which educators can explore the best alternatives to dissection; and then expanding these alternatives to all courses, so that dissection is completely eliminated.”

Cifu also plans to work with the Academic Affairs Committee and faculty members of the biology and psychology departments to create a dissection-free curriculum. 

Prof. of Psychology Alev Erisir, chair of the Psychology Department, said in an email to The Cavalier Daily that the Psychology Department is willing to work with students and make appropriate changes based on their concerns.

“While I can’t comment on any specifics because the Psychology department has not received a petition as of yet, I really appreciate our student body’s initiative to make their opinions heard,” Erisir said in an email this fall. “I am confident that the concerns they raise will be taken seriously by our undergraduate program and the curriculum committee, and appropriate steps will be taken to respond to those concerns.”

Cifu intends to work with the departments and find an adequate alternative. She believes that with proper implementation and expansion of these alternatives, dissections can be eliminated within all courses in the near future. 

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