I called an old friend tonight and blurted out, “I started my job today and I’m experimenting on animals.” And it’s true, I am – but until I said that to her, it had not occurred to me to think of it that way. Today was my first day of my first job in science. I will spend the next few weeks learning to dissect chick embryos, “window” eggs, and use a microscope properly. As someone who has restricted and unrestricted her diet in many ways, “I started my job today and I’m experimenting on animals”, was not a sentence I ever considered as a possible future utterance. I have read the books, joined the organizations, I thought I believed in animal rights. But apparently, some cognitive dissonance needs sorting.

Big girl was my first dissection, a cat, for my anatomy and physiology class at community college last year (when I first returned to school). Half of the A+P sections worked with clay models, the other half did the more traditional cat dissections. Everyone did the sheep brain and cow eye. And luck of the draw had me in a cat section. Faced with an embalmed cat, my beliefs were out the window – I wanted to learn the anatomy, and told myself a convenient lie that the cats were euthanized from shelters. Still can’t figure out what part of my brain made that up. But, however flawed and false my rationalizations, there is no denying that I learned from Big Girl. Named by Ana, one of my Polish lab partners who refused to touch her, I became intimately acquainted with the muscles, nerves, organs and blood vessels of this large female cat. I liked working with my hands, learning with my hands – and I can say confidently that a cadaver would have been better, but the cat taught me all of the foundations.

By saying that a cadaver would have been better, does that somehow excuse me from participating in the death of this cat to teach a bunch of community college kids anatomy? I guess that’s my way of qualifying – sure I would have learned from a human, why don’t you donate your body? But, by calling that class a bunch of community college kids, I am oversimplifying and not giving them or myself any credit. Everyone who finished that class wanted to work in health care. The majority will be LPNs, nurse’s aids or RNs, some will become NPs, PAs or doctors. I can only assume that those cats gave the rest of the people in the class a similar foundation, and what’s that worth? At the risk of dramatizing, what’s that worth when you’re in an ambulance?

Well, this question will not be resolved easily, or through monologue. Back to the embryos. They are small, really tiny. Surrounded by yolk and other membranes that I can not yet name, they are so perfectly perfect when you get up close to them. It is a shame to poke at them with blades “dull as ditch water” according to Betsy. They are also somewhat colorless, aside from the blood, making texture the main distinguishing feature between tissues. I tried and failed to extract three embryos from their yolks. I saved two more eggs for tomorrow, hopefully sleep will refine my motor skills.

First days are first days. And, philospohical concerns aside, hopefully these embryos will teach me as much as Big Girl did.

Chick Embryo

3 responses to “Embryos

  1. I thought it was true that the cats euthanized were from shelters. Brian says (soon we’ll hear from him directly I bet) he’s heard that some believe the cats were raised for dissections, but he does not think that’s actually the case. Maybe you have learned differently? If so, maybe we should start lobbying shelters to make better use of their poor dead lovely kitties so they can at least help some people–and, possibly by extension, maybe even some future cats.
    Great pic of the chick embryo. Is that from your lab?

    Reply: According to my lab instructor, sadly those cats were farmed somewhere in the southwest and purchased by the school.

  2. Sad. Time to lobby then, I guess. One wonders why, with so many cats in shelters. We will have to investigate further.
    Nevertheless, clearly there is no substitute for hands-on, “hands-in” explorations.

  3. As for cat specimen sources, I’ve heard several stories from biological supply houses as well as sales reps for scientific suppliers. Some have said that their cats are from shelters, others have alluded to ‘cat farming’. In many cases when I’ve taught cat anatomy, the specimens were consistent with shelter cats : highly variable body mass and leanness, stomach contents including non-edible matter, insects, and mice, and all sorts of injuries such as massive abdominal hemorrhage and broken bones.

    FYI, I’ve heard that in the US, we have only a few major processors of anatomical specimens, one major located in Wisconsin. A sales rep spoke of a huge facility where many cats were embalmed and the vascular injections performed.

    But we won’t use cats for a while at the Naval Academy. We will try one of the many excellent virtual cadaver dissections as a gross anatomy (and histology) learning experience. That aims to bridge the gaps between reality (the images on CD are excellent), relevance (‘Why are we dissecting a cat?’), and cost (we have no cadaver facilities, and no budget to build them, either).

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