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    South Asia
     Dec 3, 2011

Comfort for India's creatures
By Raja Murthy

In a breakthrough for animals' right to life, India has banned animal dissections in college laboratories and hopes to phase them out nationwide. Students and researchers will use computer simulations of creatures' anatomies rather than torturing them in the name of science.

Regulator for higher education the University Grants Commission (UGC) has issued anti-dissection guidelines that are expected to save about 19 million creatures in India every year.

The guidelines would reduce the suffering of many species such as rabbits, monkeys, cats, guinea pigs, frogs, mice, butterflies and other insects that are chopped into pieces in laboratories, or subject to all manner of painful experiments or procedures.

The "Guidelines for discontinuation of dissection and animal experimentation in Zoology/ Life Sciences in a phased manner" was released by the UGC

measures on November 26 as the outcome of a taskforce studying the issue [1]. It overturns 90 years of animal practices in biology labs on the sub-continent.

In a growing worldwide movement against animal dissection, countries such as Argentina, Australia Israel, Italy, Poland and Switzerland have either banned animal dissection for school children, or permit it only for university students.

American states such as New York, New Jersey, California, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Vermont, Rhode Island and Oregon offer students a choice on dissection, or have put in place monitoring bodies.

An estimated six million vertebrate animals are dissected in American high schools alone every year; and over 170 species of non-human beings are either dissected or vivisected - cut open while still living [2].

India's guidelines are the first government-approved steps for a nationwide phasing out of animal dissection at all levels, or limiting it to "essential" work on laboratory-bred animals.

The UGC move follows the Indian government declaring in 1997 that dissection be a choice for school students, and in 2001 the Central Board of Secondary Education banning dissecting of rats, frogs and mice in over 8,500 schools it regulates.

Many leading medical schools in the US such as Harvard, Stanford and Yale have already stopped using live animals to train medical students. Use of human cadavers and simulation technology are considered sufficient enough for medical education.

Leading the way towards the more compassionate learning of science has been India's Mahatma Gandhi Doerenkamp Centre (MGDC), a national research centre mandated to find "Alternatives to Use of Animals in Life Science Education" - in accordance with the ahimsa principle of non-violence that Mohandas Gandhi advocated.

The MGDC is bringing out alternative laboratory curriculum for UGC approval, an effort enabling other sentient beings included in the dictum of "Do unto others as you would have them do to you".

The Mahatma Gandhi Doerenkamp Centre, established by the Switzerland-based Doerenkamp-Zbinden Foundation, has been working on computer simulation learning devices for dissection, with support of animal protection agencies such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, India, People for Animals and I-CARE.

The University Grants Commission's guidelines would end measures that animal-rights activists and others see as barbaric and cold-blooded arrogance of one species, among millions of others in this planet, acting as if the entire world exists to serve human self-interest.

Director of the MGDC, MA Akbarsha, described the UGC guidelines as being of "historical significance, paving way for restoration of habitats of endangered species, biodiversity and ecological balance".

The UGC anti-dissection guidelines appear as much about respect for life as over environmental concerns:
" ... in the light of emergence of newer branches such as biodiversity, biochemistry, biophysics, molecular biology, etc, in the contemporary scenario, there is over-emphasis of learning of anatomy as laboratory exercises. ... The number of such institutions has become manifold and more than a million students take to programs requiring animals for dissections. Most of these animals are caught from the wild, and their indiscriminate removal from the natural habitats disrupts the biodiversity and ecological balance.

Thus, use of animals in dissections has come to be a factor compounding with habitat loss, pollution and climate changes in depletion of animal populations. It is a fact that the demand for dissection specimens increases pressure on threatened species. The case of frogs, the population of which has declined to alarming levels in the recent times, is often cited as the example."
The Mumbai headquarters of PETA has called the UGC move a "major victory for animals".

PETAIndia had campaigned for banning dissection, including writing letters to expert committee of the UGC, petitions from students and the public.

Benazir Suraiya, the projects coordinator for PETA India, narrated her revulsion from personal experience of seeing animals vivisected in labs, with and without anesthesia.

"While dead human cadavers are dissected in medical colleges, it is very unfair for living animals to be killed for experiments or cut open alive, more so, since animals cannot speak about their pain or fight back. Animals have as much right to live on earth," Suraiya told Asia Times Online.

A reasonable point, as this author wouldn't enjoy being locked up by Bugs Bunny and then chopped up alive to develop a safe super carrot for welfare of rabbit-kind.

Besides, animal rights activists say research has shown that a significant number of students, from school to universities, are uncomfortable using animals in dissection and experimentation. The discomfort, say researchers, often deters students from a career in science.

Working for an alternative curriculum is the MGDC, part of the Bharatidasan University based in the southern Indian city of Tiruchirappalli or Trichy, that has its website leading with a Mahatma Gandhi quotation: "The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated."

The UGC recommendations, approved by the Ministry of Human Resource Development, were issued after taking into account the flouting of existing laws in use of animals in labs.

The new guidelines are in tune with India's Wild Life Protection Act of 1972 and the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act of 1960. India has a constitutional clause, under Section 51A (G), that says: "It shall be the duty of every citizen of India to protect and improve natural environment including forests, lakes, rivers and wildlife, and to have compassion for all living creatures".

The guidelines are in fact implementing Sec 17.1 (d) of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960. This law asks for experiments on animals to be avoided wherever possible, in medical colleges, hospitals, scientific labs etc, if alternatives such as books, models, films etc serve the purpose. Sec 17 (f) of the law asks that, as far as possible, experiments on animals are not carried out merely to acquire manual skill.

The MGDC held a weekend ideas-generating session at the Stella Maris College in Chennai, on November 25 and 26, towards teaching science without the torture of living creatures. The less violent curriculum could include the reminder that there is no escaping the law of nature: one gets back what one dishes out to other beings.

1. University Grants Commission, New Delhi Guidelines for discontinuation of dissection and animal experimentation in Zoology/Life Sciences in a phased manner (http://www.ugc.ac.in/notices/guidelines_animaldisection.pdf)
2. Pithing, for instance, is a procedure common in undergraduate classes. It involves destroying a living animal's central nervous system to study various physiological processes. The Washington-based Humane Association of the United States says frogs and turtles are two species commonly used in pithing. The procedure involves severing the spinal cord of the live animal. Then its brain is destroyed by inserting a needle into the back of the skull. The needle is thenmoved around to "scramble" brain tissue. Next, the student inserts the needle into the vertebral canal of the still living animal to destroy its reflexes. The tortured animal continues to function physiologically for hours following the pithing procedure - Questions and Answers on Dissection, American Humane Society (http://www.humanesociety.org/issues/dissection/qa/questions_answers.html)

Raja Murthy is an independent writer based in Mumbai, India.

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