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Rats are safe, not life science

- Restrictions on dissection in college labs trigger concern

New Delhi, Nov. 20: Curbs on animal dissections prescribed by the University Grants Commission have left an unknown number of undergraduate biology students across India bereft of mandatory practical exercises and could erode India’s competitiveness in the life sciences, biologists have warned.

Sections of biology faculty say several colleges across the country have reduced or stopped dissections by students after the UGC issued guidelines recommending a ban on any dissection by undergraduates, although no one knows how many colleges have adopted the guidelines.

Some colleges are no longer offering undergraduate students the range of practical exercises mandated by the UGC’s own model syllabus, citing difficulty in procuring even cockroaches for dissection and fears of abuse and violence by animal rights activists.

“It is embarrassing — the choice of practical exercises has become severely limited, faculty are now wondering how to conduct practical exams,” said Kambadur Muralidhar, a professor of zoology at the University of Delhi and former head of a UGC panel that had drawn up the model zoology syllabus.

The syllabus requires BSc zoology students to be exposed to dissections of cockroaches, earthworms, pigeons and rats, among other organisms. But the UGC guidelines on animal experimentation prescribe that faculty can only demonstrate dissection of “only one species”, and “students should not do any dissection at all”.

“Nowhere in the world have universities done away with dissections altogether,” said Savithri Singh, the principal of Acharya Narendra Dev College in New Delhi, where a group of animal rights activists had congregated earlier this year and shouted abuses at zoology teachers.

Senior scientists believe the ban on dissections by undergraduate students, if implemented across India, will deny students the opportunity to learn animal-handling skills and in the long term even hurt India’s competitiveness in the life sciences.

“This will ruin life sciences education in India,” said Nirmal Lohiya, professor emeritus at the University of Rajasthan, Jaipur. “It’s in the undergraduate classes that students have to learn how to anaesthetise the animal, how to operate and how to handle animals with necessary care.”

Animal rights groups in India have over the past decade mounted pressure on research and educational institutions to curb animal experimentation. They have documented what they say is convincing evidence that animals are being inhumanely treated in many laboratories.

Sections of the scientific community view the UGC guidelines — pencilled by a panel of zoologists — as an outcome of India’s apex educational body allowing itself to be appropriated to promote the agenda of animal rights groups.

But a senior scientist who was a member of the UGC panel that drafted the guidelines said he believed dissection was an antiquated exercise. “Students today need exercises involving cells and genes and the modern techniques of biology,” said Mohammad Akbarsha, a zoologist at the Bharatidasan University in Tiruchirappalli. “Dissections should be replaced by observations of live animals in natural environments, this would be a more thrilling experience for students,” Akbarsha said.

But vast sections of zoology faculty believe hands-on dissection is a crucial component of life sciences education.

“Undergraduate students need to go through this learning phase,” said Geeta Gautam, a zoologist at the Women’s College, Banaras Hindu University, Varanasi.

Research scholars pursuing PhD degrees in the life sciences are often required to handle experimental mice or rats, among other animals. Scientists believe it is critical for students to acquire the confidence and skill to handle animals in the undergraduate years.

“Some students use that experience to decide whether to pursue careers in life sciences or not,” said Gautam. In her college, undergraduate students get to watch only a single rat dissected by a teacher and are allowed to dissect only insects — cockroaches, prawns, and scorpions.

“We’ve also restricted our undergraduate dissections to mosquitoes and other insects,” said Rajan Udhayakumar, an assistant professor of zoology at the Nesamany Memorial College in Marthandan in Kanyakumari district.

But animal rights activists insist that there is evidence that dissections are not needed to learn biology. “Dozens of research studies have established that at all levels of education, learning methods without animals can help students learn as well as or even better than dissections,” said Chaitanya Koduri, the science policy adviser to the People for Ethical Treatment of Animals.

“Non-animal methods based on three-dimensional models give students opportunities to repeat procedures to master manual dexterity,” Koduri said. “Such methods also help students gain superior understanding of complex biological processes.”

Muralidhar said the UGC guidelines have injected “enormous confusion” as, ideally, the guidelines are expected to be discussed independently at each university for follow-up response and comments, unlike a UGC notification which has to be adopted without any debate.

“I don’t know any university that has yet debated these guidelines,” said Muralidhar, who has co-authored recommendations from the scientific community that, he said, seek to balance the demands of science and education with the demands of animal rights groups.

The recommendations call for a reduction in the frequency of dissections, seek alternate species for dissection if a species is considered too valuable, and urge India’s department of science and technology to support a programme to improve living conditions of animal houses in educational institutions.

In a paper submitted to the Indian National Science Academy, Koduri has said that the quality of animal houses in many laboratories itself causes an appalling level of suffering for experimental animals.

“We need to set our own house in order,” said an Indian biologist who requested anonymity. “Many animal houses in academic institutions are just dungeons, this has to change. Without nation-wide improvements in how we handle animals, this dispute isn’t going to go away.”