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Sounds like a scene from a horror movie. Students sent out to a nearby field to catch and kill their own rats for dissection. Others dissect organs from the local abattoir then feed the remains as pet food. Or worse, cook the carcasses for human consumption.
However, this is not the work of idle fiction but how several schools in the Gauteng area have reported they procure and dispose of animals for secondary school dissections. Perhaps most frightening is the lesson these learners discover as they are encouraged to catch and kill animals, and the potential of inadvertently teaching youth to disregard both animal and human life.
“Many life science teachers feel that based on the Life Sciences curriculum, they must have practical hands-on experience in dissection. For schools facing tight budgets, they try to do the best they can in their circumstances,” says Erika Bornman, manager of the Animal Ethics Unit at the National Council of SPCAs (NSPCA).
“However, the improper procurement, handling, euthanasing, and disposal of dissection animals carries, in some instances, dire consequences and raises a number of red flags,” continues Bornman. “We don’t see the necessity of hands-on dissections on animals at secondary school. We do offer a number of alternatives to dissections that are even more cost-effective than procuring organs from an abattoir.”
Health and safety risks to students and teachers
Trying to catch an animal from the wild may result in a scratch or bite wound. Diseases such as rabies, leptospirosis, and tularemia are all possible diseases that can be spread from animal to human and can be lethal if not accurately treated with immediate effect. If a human gets bitten by a rabid animal and does not receive a vaccination within a short window period, they will die; there is no cure for rabies once the window period expires.
Leptospirosis is spread through contact through the skin or mucous of infected animals and can lead to kidney damage, meningitis, liver failure, respiratory distress, and even death.
Tularemia can be caught by handling the carcass of an infected animal and through lab exposure. According to the Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, tularemia is life-threatening but may be treated by a course of antibiotics.
“A school could face medical expenses and not to mention the legal issues, should a learner sustain a bite while trying to catch an animal after being instructed to do so by a teacher,” says Vercuiel. “Is that risk really worth taking?”
Anyone intending to catch an indigenous animal in the open must be in possession of a permit from Nature Conservation in their respective province, and anyone failing to do so may face legal consequences. There is a good chance that an endangered species of field mice or frog may be caught, and without the necessary permits, the school may be at risk of legal woes.
The National Council of SPCAs is committed to ensuring the welfare of all animals and works directly with schools to find realistic alternatives to secondary school dissections. The organisation ensures and enforces the wellbeing of all animals which includes a method of euthanasia, to ensure as little suffering as possible.
“It’s very unlikely that a 16-year-old learner has the skills and experience to euthanise any animal humanely,” says Vercuiel. ”Not to mention the ethical implications of encouraging the behaviour in our youth. There is a very real concern that once a learner has caught and killed an animal for dissection at school, they will turn and look for the next animal to try at home.”
Procurement is only half of the problem; disposal of the remains raises additional issues as some schools interviewed stated that the organs procured for the purpose of dissections were disposed of by feeding it to domestic pets or cooking the dissected organs for human consumption.
“The first rule of lab work is never eat or drink anything in the lab environment, including bringing in a drink or food for the purpose of consumption within the lab,” says Vercuiel. “There is huge potential for contamination of the item which is in an unsterile environment, handled by numerous people and accessories. And if the area and tools have been cleaned, they should have been done so with chemicals that are dangerous to human health.”
Basic occupational health and safety rules apply, and carcasses must be sent for incineration after dissection.
Several alternatives to hands-on dissection are currently available such as interactive DVDs, lifelike models and interactive computer models. The DVDs include general notes for teachers, an introduction to the external features of the animal, then leads the learners through the digestive, circulatory system, nervous system, and skeletal systems. These DVDs can be procured at a nominal fee from the NSPCA.