Learning Science Takes (Cat) Guts

Ella Kate McCord

The thing that Mr. Morris wants his students to get out of this class is to “never take your body for granted.”

Everyone walking the Lovett halls during the spring season knows about the bad smell on the third floor. I heard in the past that animal dissection was part of the anatomy class curriculum so when I learned that the anatomy class dissected cats, I knew I’d discovered the source of that horrible smell! 

The majority of the students in this anatomy class are upperclassmen. After studying anatomy through drawings all semester, they start performing actual dissections to end the semester. 

I spoke with Mr. Morris, their teacher, to find out why the students perform dissections, and some of the challenges of working with things that were once alive.

During the cat dissections, they use scalpels along with very sharp cutting tools to be able to cut into every body part. Mr. Morris said that the worst thing that he has seen while cutting open a cat is when they cut there were dead worms in it. “That one got me, I was a little nauseous,” he said.

When I asked Mr. Morris about the significance of this class he told me that the main goal is to learn about how all of your different body parts work together to keep you going. “It’s one thing to just learn all the parts which is what the anatomy piece is. I could just give you a list of 500 words to memorize, or I could show you pictures of where they are on a human. But there is no substitute for actually seeing it in the flesh,” he said. He later told me that the cats show all of the pieces coming together to make the body function. 

Students dissect cats because they have similar anatomy to humans. Mr. Morris told me that the diagrams and pictures are nothing like the actual cats, and that no cat ever looks the same. When asked if there were ever any complaints about the dissections he simply told me that he makes it clear from the beginning that in order to pass the class you have to make these dissections. 

The weeks leading up to the dissections prepare you for what you are going to see. He always tells them that the first day that we get the cats out, “there is a good chance that you're going to feel upset or bothered and that is totally normal, and if you need to leave the classroom that is ok.” He insisted that by the second day the students see the cats as more something that they use for class and less of what could be someone’s pet.

Because cats are so common as pets here, I could not even imagine having to look at my pet if I had been dissecting their species in a classroom. Knowing that, I asked around to see who in this class has a cat. 

Senior Owen Armentrout happens to have a cat and when I asked him about how it affects looking at his cat he replied that he sees the cadaver as “less of a cat and more of a dissection tool and an anatomy tool. I do not think about it as a living thing that I am operating on.” 

Interestingly enough I did not expect to get that answer at all. I was expecting him to say that he would never be able to look at his cat the same way. I know for a fact that I would never be able to look at my dog again after that. 

During the dissection process, students move through different layers and systems of the cat and as some students said, it starts off with the least disgusting parts and moves to the most disgusting parts, like the guts of the cats. 

According to Leslie Lewallen, the first day of these dissections is always the hardest because it is your first day seeing the cats right in front of you, your first time smelling them, and your first time having to dissect something. The smell goes away and the upperclassmen even said that they cannot even smell it anymore because they have just gotten so used to it. 

“It was very gross at first, but we started with muscle identification which was the least gross out of the three because we did three main ones. So it kind of built up on nastiness,” says senior Ivy Smith. 

During COVID, students couldn’t do the dissections because they were attending school virtually.  Unfortunately for two years they were not allowed to dissect anything and had to only learn anatomy online. 

There was also a two-year period of time in the past when they had to dissect bunnies. This was not as comparable to the human body as cats are to humans, but they did not have enough cats available. Bunnies were the closest thing that they could get. 

The least fun part to talk about is where all of these animals come from. “The cats come from pet shelters that are kill facilities,” says Mr. Morris. He says that this is one of the hardest questions to answer because it is so sad to talk about. 

Although saddened to hear this, it was still very interesting to hear from different students and their opinions on how their anatomy class is, and how this learning will help them later in life when pursuing things involving anatomy. 

The thing that Mr. Morris wants his students to get out of this class is to “never take your body for granted” because all the parts are working so hard together to keep you going.
The Lovett School is an independent, coeducational day school where children from Kindergarten through Grade 12 find the courage to explore and the drive to discover.

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