In Miami-Dade schools, cats are now off the dissection table

A group of students at MAST in Homestead, a public school devoted to medical sciences, dissect a cat carcass during a 2011 class. Miami-Dade schools are now banning the use of felines for dissection.
A group of students at MAST in Homestead, a public school devoted to medical sciences, dissect a cat carcass during a 2011 class. Miami-Dade schools are now banning the use of felines for dissection. Miami Herald

Miami-Dade School board member Raquel Regalado was aghast after watching a recent YouTube video of some Oklahoma students using cat cadavers as puppets in a choreographed song and dance — and decided she had to move quickly.

“I don’t want to hear about a cat dissection video in one of our Miami-Dade public schools,” she said.

Prodded by Regalado, the board this week unanimously agreed to halt cat dissections — a practice still pursued in advanced science classes in six county schools and supported by many biology teachers as an important “hands-on” experience. Now, students in those advanced classes will stick to slicing into earthworms or amphibians.

With access to “virtual” dissection computer programs in all Miami-Dade schools, Regalado said it was time to take cat cadavers out of the hands of high school kids.

“People couldn’t believe that we still did it,” Regalado said. “This is a very old-school thing. Now that we have options, let’s fully explore those options.”

Rita Schwartz, co-founder of the Pets’ Trust Miami, a grassroots group intended to improve animal welfare, said it was a “happy day“ knowing that students won’t be grossed out by — or be making fun of — a formaldehyde-reeked ritual of high school biology. Students in an Oklahoma class had created the video, performed to the tune of the famous Meow Mix cat food jingle, that had made its way to Regalado.

“This was long overdue,” Schwartz said after urging board members to halt cat dissections. “That we haven’t done this already is archaic.”

The debate on the dissection of domesticated animals like cats and dogs isn’t new. Broward County schools banned it over 15 years ago. In 2010, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals pushed Miami-Dade to do the same, but the county allowed a limited number of classes to continue the practice.

But with teens sharing everything, including selfies and online videos with dead cats, more groups have weighed in, increasing public pressure. In June, Harding Charter Preparatory High School in Oklahoma ended its cat dissection program because of backlash over the two-year-old video. The Newport-Mesa Unified School District in California did the same after the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine filed a complaint to Facebook in 2012 when students posted gruesome cat photos to the site.

Although animal rights groups praised the move, some members of the academic community called it a step backwards for education. In a letter to the school board, 26 biology professors from Florida International University asked board members to vote against the item, citing the value of “hands-on exploratory learning.”

“The use of animal dissections is a fundamental aspect of biological training because it permits direct observation of biological systems and how they work,” the letter stated. Professors were concerned mostly with the dissection classes that high school students take at the university level for credit.

Six public high schools in Miami-Dade County reported performing cat dissections in Advanced Placement biology or physiology classes in the 2014-2015 school year. Barbara Goleman in Miami Lakes, South Miami Senior High, Homestead Senior High, Miami Palmetto, Dr. Michael M. Krop Senior High School and Arthur and Polly Mays Conservatory of the Arts still perform the dissections, although a state policy allows students to opt out.

“We encourage real-world application,” said Cristian Carranza, Miami-Dade County Public School District’s administrative director of STEM curriculum. “Everyone knows virtual is great but nothing can beat the real experience.”

Flesh and blood cats do come at a small cost. The school district purchases them from three science supply vendors. One of those vendors said it only uses euthanized cats from government-operated animal shelters. According to data from Miami Dade Public School District, a kit of 10 cats for a class of 30 students runs $430. The school district could not estimate the number of cats used per year, or the total cost to the district.

Virtual-dissection software is much cheaper, and reusable. In 2010 PETA provided two free “virtual” dissection programs, Digital Frog and Cat Works, to Miami-Dade. At the time, not all schools had access to computers.

The school board’s vote also gave authority to Superintendent Alberto Carvalho to decide best practices for all other non-virtual dissections. Jaclyn Reeves-Pepin, executive director of the National Association of Biology Teachers, lamented teachers’ loss of decision-making power in the laboratory.

“The choice has been taken away from educators and students,” Reeves-Pepin said. “We believe the instructors of the course are best suited to determine the proper use of any classroom resource, be it a specimen, simulation or a book, to achieve the intended outcomes for the course,” she said.

Reeves-Pepin also worries school boards across the country could go too far. “Are we now talking about removing fish tanks from elementary school classrooms? The question is where does it stop?”

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