Dissecting Cats With High School Students
As a first-year high school anatomy teacher I got into the habit of hiding my cat dissection manual under a pile of books whenever guests came to my house. Toby, my big orange tomcat, liked sleeping on its crumpled, stained pages. I worried that people might look at the sketches of cats in varying stages of dissection and get the wrong idea. My guests needn’t have worried: Toby was safe from my scalpel. The 30 dead cats stuffed in bins in my classroom were not.
At the beginning of the school year, when I told the students about the upcoming cat dissection unit, I allayed their fears by telling them that dissecting a cat wasn’t nearly as scary as they thought. Rumors were flying, fed by students from previous years, about the smell of the cats, the amount of memorization required, and the final test in which they would have to rotate through stations of cats, identifying the different muscles marked with tiny pins. There were even whispers of pregnant cats, with tiny, perfectly preserved kittens inside.
I didn’t know what was rumor or fact. Truth be told, I didn’t know much of anything, having never actually taken anatomy before. So I resorted to a time-honored teaching strategy: diversion and deflection.
“Trust me, once you open that cat up, you’ll be amazed,” I told them in answer to all their questions. I was, of course, lying through my teeth, as I’d never dissected a cat before. I’d observed a kangaroo necropsy, a horse necropsy, open-heart surgery on a dog, and dissected more mouse embryos than any normal human being ever should. Cats, however, I hadn’t had the pleasure. When I accepted the job to teach anatomy and physiology and AP Biology, my reservations were mingled with foolish naivety.
Then during orientation, when I learned about the required cat dissection unit, my fears escalated into “How the hell can a cat-crazy person dissect a cat?”
The cats were delivered to my classroom just before the start of winter break. I looked at the stacks of cardboard boxes, took a deep breath, and opened up the lid. Peeking inside, I saw dead cats shrink-wrapped in plastic, their limbs spread-eagled and their mouths stuffed with Styrofoam. They looked surprised.
“I’m sorry,” I told them, closing the box again. I spent the next few weeks peeking into the boxes, trying not to look at the big orange cats. I wondered, once again, how I was going to dissect a cat. Would Toby understand?
The week before the cat dissection unit started, I spent several long hours gently cutting skin away from muscle and scraping off the white tissue-like fascia. Once the skin was off, I looked at the patchwork of muscles with the different angles of muscle striations, and I felt a small moment of awe. Then I got to work, separating and identifying the different muscles: the rectus femoris, vastus lateralis, vastus medialis, and vastus intermedialis of the quadriceps; the gluteus maximus, so big in humans and so tiny in cats; the strip-like extensors on the cat’s forearms; and the wing-shaped latissimus dorsi running down the cat’s back.
I guess I hadn’t lied to my students after all. Once I’d opened that cat up, I’d been amazed too.
Thus prepared, the cat dissection began. The first day I handed the cats out to the different groups and let them shriek at the sight. Then they let the cat out of the bag, the procedure for which was: (1) Cut slit in bag, (2) Grab forelimbs, and (3) Pull gently, easing cat onto a dissecting pan.
Voila! Cat out of bag!
“Where did they get the cats?” my students kept asking.
“Probably a shelter. Spay and neuter your cats,” I told them. As my students looked at me in horror, I once again remembered that the bluntness that worked so well in a lab environment didn’t apply here. I’d been learning tact all year, dampening down my technical language and softening my scientific detachment. A few months earlier, my students had erupted into an uproar over my pronunciation of telophase, a whole chorus of voices bursting out, “Miz Fairbank! It’s TELL-O-PHASE! Why you saying TEE-LO-PHASE?” as I stared at them in surprise, remembering that once upon a time as a high school student, I too had said tell-o-phase, at least until I moved into a research world that involved a plethora of accents and the pronunciation “tee-lo-phase.”
At the end of the day, the cats having been let out of the bags, I headed home, where Toby was waiting for me at the door. I plopped on the living room couch. I could still smell the lingering scent of dissection fluid, a harsh scent that burns the nostrils, on my clothes.
Toby came to sit by me, his ears perking up. I looked over at his hunched figure, at the thick orange fur, at the skin that I knew how to remove and at the outlines of his bones and muscles underneath. With an index finger, I started tracing the clavotrepezius muscle on his neck, the fat palmaris longus muscle running down the inside of his forearm, and biceps femoris of his hindlimbs.
As my fingers traced his muscles, Toby looked at me and he sneered, one lip lifting to expose his teeth. My husband taught him that trick, back when we first adopted him from the shelter. Clearly, Toby didn’t think my day had been all that notable.
“Don’t you sneer at me,” I told him. “I know how to dissect you.”
Toby sneered again. Toby was a cat, which meant that as long as he got his treats he didn’t care what I’d done during the day. Treats which, as my students would soon be quizzed on, would get chewed into a roll-shaped lump of food called a bolus and then propelled down the esophagus through wavelike movements called peristalsis, and entering the stomach to be broken down into a liquid called chyme. Eventually, after this food got absorbed, the waste would then be expelled through the rectum, into a litter box that I was always cleaning, as Toby, being roughly the size of two cats, produced enough poop for three cats.
The dissection dragged on. The initial excitement having worn off, my students started complaining about all the memorization, groaning when the time came to dissect. Toby kept sneering at me. I struggled to keep one step ahead of my students. I also began to feel like a school pariah with the classroom that reeked of dead cat. My dreams turned into nightmares, mainly of the “students with scalpels” variety, only to be eclipsed by the very horrifying sight of an entire classroom of students dressed in aprons and singing in unison to Miley Cyrus’s “Wrecking Ball.”
Finally we reached the end of the unit, where we had a block period devoted to what I called “organs arts and crafts,” where my students gutted their cats, (and by gutted, I mean, gently opened the abdominal cavity, of course…) and removed the organs, pasting them onto a thick cardboard poster. The trachea, with its cartilage rings, felt like a plastic construction tube. The lungs were surprisingly light and fluffy-looking. The liver was a huge red lobed structure that took up an entire section of the abdominal cavity, pressed up against the paper-thin diaphragm.
The organs were sticky and smelly. Pulling them out produced a funny squelching noise. In other words, the perfect activity for both teenagers and anatomy teachers.
By this point, I was breathing a little easier. No students had been hurt. They might have even learned a thing or two. As my students pasted organs into labeled boxes on their cardboard poster, I walked around the classroom, feeling almost like a real teacher.
Then, during the final period of the day, in a class of about 30 students, I heard a low wall of murmuring that rippled through the classroom. Always alert to the possibility of a classroom getting out of control, I craned my neck, looking for the source of the disturbance. The epicenter seemed to be a group of students at the side of the room. As I headed towards the source, a few other students began migrating with me.
I reached the table and looked at the cat on the dissection table. Inside the abdominal cavity, squished among the intestine and stomach, were the two long horns of the uterus, swollen to almost unrecognizable proportions. Peeking out of a slit in one of the horns was a tiny, perfectly formed kitten. The cat had not been fat, as we had assumed, but pregnant. Students started jostling me, wanting to look.
“Kittens!” one student shrieked, and at the sound, the classroom broke into full-blown chaos, as all the remaining students came running to look at the kittens, almost full-term, crammed inside the cat’s uterus. “Kittens!” someone shrieked again.
One of the students, in a display of impeccable teenage logic, wanted to take a dead kitten home. She started looking around for a jar and dissection fluid, finally settling on a clear plastic bag filled with a little dissecting fluid. By the time I figured out what her intentions were, she had removed a kitten, placed it in the bag, and tied it at the top.
“You can’t do that!’ I shrieked. “NO! Absolutely not!’ At no point, in any of the myriad professional development courses that I had been forced to endure in the past year had I ever heard a single useful piece of advice on how to handle a student who was determined to take a biological specimen home.
The student in question lost her head. She screamed “This isn’t fair,” and ran out the door. I stared at the door, the student long-gone down the hallway. My hands began to shake.
In a few minutes, the dean poked his head into the classroom to ask just what the hell was going on. “I’ve never seen her [the student] act out,” he said.
“I don’t know what happened,” I said, almost in tears. “I just don’t know.” The dean looked around at the cats on dissecting trays, shuddered a little, made his excuses, and left.
I suppose that was the benefit of all those dead cats: No one wanted to stick around long enough to see if I was at fault or not. The seconds ticked by. As the class ended and the students filed out, I looked around at my classroom, at the plastic bins over-flowing with dead cats, at the dissecting tools that, as much as I nagged, the students never cleaned properly, and at the rack of stained dissecting aprons.
I tried not to cry. I’d spent months flying by the seat of my pants, trying to keep one step ahead of my students, trying to keep up the façade that I was a competent teacher who knew what she was doing. At the beginning of the year, I had been warned, over and over again, that there would come a moment when my students would test my limits.
Now the moment had come and I had failed the test. I slumped into my seat, feeling completely defeated.
As I got home that day, Toby was waiting for me at the door. He looked at me and I looked back. “Long day,” I said, stretching out on the couch. My muscles and joints ached with the fatigue of an adrenaline crash. Toby came and sat on my chest, the warmth of his body settling into the slope of my torso. As I stroked his fur, I could feel the hard ridges of his vertebrae, the hard edges of his scapula, and the gentle ridge of bone, called the spine, that bisected the scapula. I remembered that moment of looking at the patchwork of muscles that knit a cat together. The body—both cat and human—really was a beautiful work of art. In a little while, my eyelids began to feel heavy and I drifted off into scalpel-free dreams.
Rachel Fairbank trained as a geneticist, worked as a high school teacher, and is now a graduate student in creative writing. A native New Yorker, she lives and writes in Houston, Texas.
Photo: U.S. Dept. of Agriculture