By John Carbonaro (The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the position of ARAUNY)
Back when i was in high school, we didn’t dissect. That happened at my community college. A lot has changed in H.S. since then, including going from the ‘typical’ earthworm/frog to… cats. The focus on the dissection of cats and the ensuing revulsion of this may seem similar to our protest when we view other cultures consuming what we regard as domestic ‘pets’.The animal rights response to this is often: “Why focus only on cats?” when all exploited animals should receive equal consideration. In this case it would be the ‘other’ targets of high school /introductory dissection – earthworms, grasshoppers, starfish, and frogs among others.One argument may stem from the concept of the continuum of sentience. The ‘higher’ or more complex the nervous system, the more tenuous the ethics of performing these procedures (for the ‘higher’ benefit) becomes. Others might disagree based on the belief that, regardless of sentience, we don’t need to use these creatures to obtain the level of knowledge necessary at this educational level. Additionally the consideration that the potential negative effect of ‘priming’ or exposing children at this age to regard or interact with animals in this manner (objectified) outweighs the potential benefits that were aimed for. We have to know something about human pathology with regard to animal cruelty. Animal cruelty by children is usually on a continuum, starting with insects and moving up to more complex creatures (mammalian). The disconnect of empathy for the feelings of others may have any number of roots (biological, emotional, familial) of which the animal cruelty is *just* an unfolding set of symptoms/expressions. It is often done secretly. So it is possible that two children can be performing dissection and experiencing it differently. For the pathological child, it is a further indulgence in obtaining needs (to express anger, power & control, etc). For the normative child, it may be one of satisfying curiosity. But can we safely assume that the experience for the normative child is not in fact the beginning of its own type of pathology? There are plenty of children who privately or openly object to dissection. Many are quieted, subdued and otherwise overpowered by adults to ‘deal with it’. It is a relationship/interaction towards animals that is sanctioned and rationalized in all manner of ways by society. It often reflects the imposed hierarchical belief system of humans over animals –they are at our disposal to use as we like, for the benefit of humans.The argument is used that dissection is necessary towards the benefit of animals themselves (eg; future vetrinary care). While this is true in and of itself, the question/concern posed is whether or not children need this type of exposure at this time in their lives, and whether other market interests (animal –body industries) are behind the impetus. Adults, especially teachers are more apt to condone these procedures as educational, scientific query, and from the outside, many children appear to engage in the activities readily. Often however, there is much ‘fooling around’ with the bodies, typically by boys. While perhaps not indicative of overt sanctioned cruelty, these displays seemingly conjure up some notion of disrespect. One must also wonder if children can, on a developmental level, really comprehend what they are doing. If they cannot, can they really be said to be choosing and accepting their relations (objectifying-dissecting) to animal-others ? When considering children’s developmental levels, the original concern come back into full view: *should* there be a specific concern for dissecting cats (as well as the general concern for dissection of any creature)? Domesticated animals such as cats play a central role as family companions, they can practically be siblings to kids. Children are very much relationship- dependent for security, empathy and obtaining unconditional love. They often get the latter almost as much from ‘pets’ than they do from parents. These animals are a part of our home life and they are in our heads and hearts as such.
These bonds contribute to forming a supportive, protective whole from which the child’s ‘center’ continues to grow in preparation for later, more sophisticated interdependence. Thus when a general subject-of-love such as a cat becomes the object of dissection, (kids do have pet frogs too, I’m well aware) the disparity can bring potential and substantial inner conflict. Children love their animals and become dependent on them for personal growth. The procedures involved in cutting up/looking at a beloved animal from that perspective also becomes a symbolic dissection of the love relationship, the home relationship. It fragments a needed relationship-whole into parts, which by themselves are always lesser. It requires an emotional divorce from the relationship, which is more than most children are prepared for. (This argument can and should be used in relation to all animals as well). It is a well known fact that many doctors cannot perform surgical procedures on their loved ones. It is hard to be objective. While children may not be dissecting their own cats, they still are at the level of generalizing their loved cat to all other cats,( even if they don’t have a cat, there is a shared recognition in every child’s mind of their place as house companions) thus making the procedure equally conflictual. Such conflicts can result in a deadening/ rationalizing form of coping disconnect, often unrecognized by others due to the ‘acceptability’ and societal push of the practice. We are living in a present time where it is getting more difficult to cultivate within our children an inner ‘ground’ in which to exercise independent, critical thinking and leadership. Likewise these traits must be in tandem with the ability to be compassionate, caring individuals. If this wholeness is to be sustained and nurtured, we must be careful not to expose them to and predispose them to ‘dissecting’ and reducing this living wholeness into ambivalent fragments . To expose them so prematurely is to risk them losing the meaning that imbues a living ‘whole’, as well as the child’s capacity to recognize it and sustain it within themselves,their experiences, and in their encounters with others.