AP Biology students finish unit with cat dissection

AP Biology students finish unit with cat dissection

The air within the AP Biology classroom filled with a stench so strong it caused headaches. Student groups of four huddled around the lab tables wearing goggles and gloves as they examined their dissection subject: a cat.

One group began looking at the digestive organs, making sure to not damage any other organic structures as they made an incision in the tissue. One partner held the skin tissue to the side while another gently grasped the stomach and slowly created an opening to peer inside.

Another group managed to chisel a piece of the skull. Despite it taking well over an hour to fully finish, the end result was a unique look at the brain. They moved one half of the brain to the side to look deeper into the organ, finding both the external gray matter and the internal white matter; something previously seen solely through diagrams.

Because of how the class is both on A and B days, the two AP Biology classes had five days to explore the anatomy and different biological systems that allowed the cat to function. The dissection acted as the final lab for the class’ two month long look into human anatomy and the various systems that help contribute to being able to effectively function and live.

The dissection began on February 26, where the main objective was to simply get access to the inside of the cat. Leading up to this point, the classes were filled with a mix of excitement, as well as disgust in having to handle the insides of an animal. 

As the class learned more about the specifics of the lab, there was a mention that was much more impactful to some students than terminology. Since they would be working with dead cats, the next step would be to wonder where they came from.

According to AP Biology teacher Alyssa Genitoni, the cats are strays who were put into a ‘kill shelter’: an animal facility specifically made to euthanize animals in order to prevent overpopulation in regular shelters. Some of the bodies would then be offered to schools and other educational organizations.

Due to the cats having no say in the matter, as well as the inherent idea of a kill shelter, some students felt guilty about the dissection. Senior Mia Lardizabal explained her feeling towards the lab.

“I like that [the cats] were used for educational purposes,” Lardizabal said. “But at the same time I feel like [euthanizing the cats] is unethical, since some of them could have continued to live.”

Despite the moral argument surrounding the euthanization of strays, the cat lab was still helpful for students. Being able to physically see different parts of the cat’s internal anatomy allowed for a greater depth and understanding that a simple diagram would struggle to convey.

There are also people who view the lab with a different light. Senior Duncan Waddell believes he and the other students shouldn’t feel guilty about the dissection.

“If we don’t [dissect the cats], then they would have died for nothing,” Waddell said.

He then mentioned how despite the “questionability” of the kill shelters, he believes that the lab gave their death some kind of purpose even if the reasoning was less than ideal.

Despite this, Waddell enjoyed the dissection and believes that it was helpful to see the anatomy up close. He spent most of his time in the lab identifying different organs and glands, while keeping the actual extraction of organs from the body to a minimum.

It is important to note that the teachers had no say in anything relating to the kill shelter. No matter what one person’s opinion on the cats may be, they just ordered the already deceased cats for Genitoni to teach her students in a more organic way. Simply put, no teacher is “guilty” of anything. 

Thankfully, the lab was generally enjoyable for the students, and the majority agreed that the hands-on approach was much more helpful than the regular slideshow and lecture. 

”This was the most educational value the [human anatomy] unit could have given,” Lardizabal said. “Instead of looking at perfect diagrams where all the organs are bright pink and clean, …we saw them up close and it felt more real than just a picture.”

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