Cutting out the cutting up: Vivisection and animal dissection are becoming optional in some universities, says Liz Heron

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UNIVERSITY science and medical departments around Britain are dropping compulsory dissection and vivisection from undergraduate courses in response to pressure from students and animal rights campaigners.

Lancaster University's biological science department has dropped experimentation on live animals entirely from its courses and cut back drastically on practicals involving dead animals and animal tissue. A spokeswoman for the university said: 'Tissues from dead animals are used only when there is no suitable alternative; we do no dissection of vertebrates and when a dissection is performed, one specimen is filmed and shown to the class through monitors. Students are very pleased with the way animals are used here.'

Many other departments - including biology at Imperial College, London, Brunel University and the University College of Swansea; medicine at Newcastle University; and microbiology at Queen's University, Belfast - are allowing students to opt out of dissection and vivisection without loss of marks. Others allow students to opt out of course units that involve cutting up animals.

The moves coincide with a campaign by the animal rights group Animal Aid, encouraging students to challenge the use of animals in undergraduate courses. Animal Aid wants animal experiments to be optional in all courses, with alternatives provided and no loss of marks. Animal rights groups have been active on many campuses since an appeal to all first-year undergraduates last year.

A spokesman for the group said: 'Our work within schools has brought about an end to compulsory dissection at A-level, which means students are more critical about animal experiments when they enter university. The opinion of youth is on our side.'

The crusade is infuriating some university scientists, who are still smarting from violent attacks on research institutes by animal liberationists in the mid-Eighties. 'Students are being fed with propaganda and their perceptions about animal experiments are totally inaccurate,' one said. Edinburgh University is telling prospective students that those who oppose the use of any animal material will not be admitted to medicine or dentistry courses.

For their part, students complain of doctrinaire pre-course lectures promoting animal experiments; of pledges in prospectuses of optional animal work not always followed in practice; and of heavy handed treatment by staff.

Nina Herrington, a nutrition and dietetics student at Surrey University, where animal work is optional, says that when she asked to be let out of an animal experiment she was told she should not be on the course and was made to write an essay on 'Why animal experiments are necessary'. Aaron Dunne, an animal rights campaigner at Surrey, said: 'Many students want to opt out but don't because they are afraid of losing marks. We are campaigning for an alternative to animal experiments rather than opting out.'

Dr David Wight, head of the biology department at York University, says the shift away from animal work is undermining the quality of undergraduate teaching in physiology, zoology and biology. 'The dissection of animals is essential for teaching about animal physiology. In the study of nerves, muscles, the gut and the heart in particular, performing the experiment is part of the knowledge. You don't get an understanding in the same way from looking at video material.' But, he added, there was no educational argument for retaining vivisection.

A database of university departments' use of animals and animal tissue is held by the student organisation Euroniche. For information, contact Karl Bovenizer, Euroniche Administrator, KK Consultancy Ltd, 2 Somerset Road, Douglas, Isle of Man (0624 675805).

(Photograph omitted)