by Dr PU Antony- Professor of Zoology Christ University, Bangalore

End semester practical examinations are round the corner in most of the colleges. Utter confusion prevails among Biology teachers of Bangalore colleges over the last two years since the University Grants Commission (UGC) directed institutions of higher learning to ban animal dissections in the academic year 2011-12.

Owing to lack of clarity in policy, some colleges continued with their practice of dissections, while many discontinued the same. Thus in this practical examination season different colleges follow different patterns and the academic community is divided in opinion over this issue.

The UGC expert committee which recommended the ban opines that due to the over-emphasis of learning the anatomy as laboratory exercises scores of valuable animals are being expunged.

Earlier when only a few higher learning institutions existed with a considerably smaller number of students, the requirement of animals for dissections was correspondingly lower. But now with the proliferation of such institutions and over a million students, the demand for animals has become proportionately higher. The question is does such a move impact learning Biology or not? 

Academic confusion

Colleges offering courses in Biological sciences are worried whether their intake in these subjects will come down in the forthcoming years due to this ban on a traditional tool of learning biology. It offers hands-on experience to handle and cut animals to examine their anatomy.
Clearly, teachers are concerned about student’s inability to acquire dissection skills. Conversely students experience a sense of denial of an experience that the older generations talk about. 

 Dissection of animals was introduced in the 1920's in life science education. For decades, zoology students in colleges have studied the internal workings of animals by cutting them open. This 93-year-old practice was overturned by the UGC in an effort to safeguard the depleting biodiversity in the country.
The UGC’s circular F.144/ 2006 (CPP 11) directs that "Animal Ethics" should be included as a chapter in an appropriate course of study to sensitize students and other stake-holders.

In January 2010, the UGC constituted a committee to examine the issue of animal dissection. The guide lines regarding the ban on dissection which were posted on the UGC website on November 24, 2011 recommends that all institutions of higher education have to strictly adhere to the Wild Life Protection Act, 1972 and the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960.

However, realizing the laxity in approach towards these guidelines, in 2012, the UGC has communicated individually to these institutions seeking explanations on steps taken to control the practice of animal dissections in life science laboratories.

In favour of biodiversity

Most animals used in dissection are caught from the wild, and their indiscriminate removal from the natural habitats disrupts the biodiversity and ecological balance. Thus, use of animals for dissections assumes importance, compounded with loss of natural habitat owing to an increase in population and shortage of living space.

Besides, pollution and climate changes are also instrumental in the depletion of animal populations. To that extent, it is a fact that the demand for dissection specimens tends to increase pressure on threatened species of animals.

 The UGC guidelines specifically state that all institutions of higher education have to constitute "Dissection Monitoring Committees" (DMC) to focus on the use of animals. For both under graduate and post graduate programs, there shall be reduction in the number of animals for dissection and experimentation as well as in the number of species with all ethical considerations.

According to the guidelines, undergraduate science courses will hereafter not use animals during experimentation and for class work. However, cutting open of one species for demonstration purpose by faculty is allowed. Here too preference shall be given to laboratory bred animals. In tune with this, the curriculum needs to be re-tailored to encourage students to undertake more field work which involves observation, identification and documentation of animals.

Animal ethics philosophical

While animal rights activists are rejoicing, the guidelines have cast a shadow of gloom over the scientific community. They believe that animal ethics is a philosophical issue and some dissection is definitely essential for students.

The guidelines should be based on some scientific basis as to which animals have pain receptors. For instance, cockroaches do not have pain receptors, and therefore it does not experience pain, unlike mice and most other higher animals. ‘Science is self-regulatory and such guidelines are unnecessary’ they argue.
Reduce or ban?

Worried about the quality of a course in zoology excluding dissections, many academics opined that the use of animals for education should be reduced only gradually over a period of five years and a total ban should be avoided for now. Experts postulate that while the UGC bans the use of animal of any kind for dissection, the Wildlife Protection Act only prohibits the use of endangered species. They bemoan that if this rule is followed, students will have no idea what the inside of an animal looks like.

On the other hand there are also opinions from experts that the move will save the lives of thousands of animals. According to rough estimates, the total number of undergraduate life sciences students in our country exceeds 1.5 million.

If the students use on an average two animals, the move will save almost 18 million animals per academic session. These recommendations will also save a huge amount of money currently being spent on the purchase of animals every year by the universities and colleges for dissection.

It will also help in destroying the nexus between institutions of higher education and the catchers, killers, and suppliers of dead and live animals. The committee has recommended the use of modern techniques like models, multimedia computer-based simulators, mannequins and virtual labs for educating the students on animal anatomy.

Field experience as alternative

Though banning dissections can stifle improvement of manual skills in handling and cutting animals; the suggestion to include more and more field studies can definitely improve various other skills that students fail to develop today. Moreover, field study provides students with multiple experiences in natural settings.

It is a great way to infuse excitement and adventure in learning by improving their power of observation, team spirit, analytical mindset and compassion for animals. To that extent, field trips allow for actual tactile experiences and provide students cognitive and affective benefits. Importantly it enables students to develop interactive skills, besides strengthen their bond with teachers.

Thus in the present scenario, the banning of dissections and inclusion of field studies under biology practical is a welcome move and the academic community has to accept the decision wholeheartedly. Moreover the UGC has to make arrangements to strictly monitor the adherence by colleges to the regulations of the notification.

Courtesy: Deccan Herald, April 25, 2013




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