06/26/2013 05:09 pm ET Updated Aug 26, 2013

University of Colorado Reconsidering Using Live Animal Laboratories

The University of Colorado, Boulder, has recently announced that it is going to reconsider the use of live nonhuman animals in undergraduate classes. This decision astounded me given that numerous colleges, universities, medical schools, and veterinary schools have been scaling back and totally eliminating the use of live animals, a horrific and unneeded practice called vivisection.

As a biologist, ethologist, and Professor Emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder, who has long studied the social and emotional lives of other animals I was deeply disappointed to read that faculty at the school continue to have students kill hundreds of animals in outdated classroom laboratories every year. However, I am also pleased to learn that the school's Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee has asked the Curriculum Committee to perform a detailed review of these teaching exercises for there is absolutely no reason to harm and to kill animals to learn about their fascinating lives.

Computer simulations, videos, naturalistic observations and other humane methods are readily available to teach the same well-established biological and psychological principles covered in various courses and can immediately replace the university's torturous labs. It is noteworthy that the University of Colorado, Denver, has confirmed in writing that it does not use live animals in any of its undergraduate courses. They are just one of many institutions that don't have students needlessly harm and kill animals as part of their education.

The numerous and readily accessible humane methods available not only save animals' lives but are also less expensive and have been shown to teach better than crude animal labs. They also don't harden students' hearts to the plight of our fellow animals or risk traumatizing the many students opposed to harming animals. Using non-animal alternatives also does not put students in the vulnerable position of having to express their desire not to harm and to kill animals that often offends certain teachers.

Animals including mice and rats are often unfairly maligned, but cutting into and killing them in crude classroom experiments is really just as bad as doing the same to cats and dogs. All mammals share the same structures in the brain's limbic system that are related to their emotional lives. Scientific research has clearly shown that mice and rats are sensitive, empathic, and intelligent beings who feel pleasure and pain and that they have likes and desires just like ours: they want to live in peace and safety and are not mere objects for us to use as we choose. Rats emit high frequency chirps, their version of laughter, when they play and are tickled and care for other rats in need. They will free other rats from confinement even when they get nothing in return. They even choose to help a friend or stranger in need instead of receiving a chocolate snack. Summaries of the incredible amount of detailed research done in the field called "cognitive ethology", the study of animal minds, can be found here. And, a call for a for a Universal Declaration on Animal Sentience can be found here.

I hope that CU-Boulder faculty members will make use of the evolutionary gifts of empathy and compassion that we have inherited from other mammals and modernize their curriculum to spare rats, frogs, fish, and other animals from terror, pain, and death that can easily be avoided by switching to humane non-human animal learning alternatives. This move would set a wonderful precedent and also show students that they not only truly care about how other animals are treated but also want to provide the very best education possible to their students.