AP Biology cat dissection proves to be memorable

The smell coming from room 204 was difficult to describe. A hint of mothball, a waft of chemicals, and the stench of rotting flesh emanated from the biology room.

Despite the off-putting odor, I smiled and quickened my step.

Today was the day I had been waiting for.

Today was the day when I would dissect a cat.

I’m sure many students would be puzzled if they heard my reaction to this unique, albeit morbid, educational opportunity. Some cringe, grimace, or even feel sick at the mention of slicing into a furry friend in the name of science. But not me. I was more than ready to take the plunge and let my cat out of its tightly sealed, chemical-filled plastic bag.

I carefully carried my cat over to the sink and washed off its formaldehyde-soaked fur.  Its looked as if it had been electrocuted: legs splayed at odd angles, eyes squinted shut, and teeth bared.

We inferred that most of these cats had been euthanized at animal shelters.  This gave me pause; I wondered about the cat’s life. Had it been a house cat? A street cat? Had it enjoyed life, or had it grown bitter from a lack of love?

A formaldehyde-soaked cat awaits dissection from a CHS biology student.
A formaldehyde-soaked cat awaits dissection from a CHS biology student (Dawn Androphy).

But I soon put these thoughts out of my mind. After all, the cat was already dead. I was merely using the body practically, seeking a learning opportunity.

So I began the dissection with enthusiasm. I unwrapped my small razor, my tweezers, and my scissors. I pulled up the skin and made the first cut.

I soon realized that it would be tough going. The cat was not simple or straightforward. The organs were layered together, one on top of the next. At first I was overwhelmed; how would I distinguish spleen from kidney, liver from lung?

But then I took a closer look. I began to recognize the familiar structures we had studied in biology. The lungs were a dark magenta, buried deep in the cavity between the ribs. The heart was surprisingly small and hard, encased in layers of fat and slimy tissues. The stomach was round and smooth, the intestines wrapped and folded together, and a pair of matching kidneys near the back of the abdomen.

It’s hard to picture the inside of an animal’s body, unless you’ve seen it for yourself. Dissecting this cat gave me a truly unique opportunity to verify that what the biology and anatomy books teach is actually true.

I cut out each organ from its connective tissue and laid it out on a plastic bag.  I cut open each body part. The veins and arteries of the cat had been stained with dyes so that the arteries stood out in shades of pink and red, while the veins were colored a deep blue. The intricacies of an animal body were amazing to observe, from the chambers of the heart to the cortex and medulla of the kidneys.

When I was finished, I wrapped up the sliced organs in the plastic and threw them away. I replaced the fur of the cat around its soggy body and put it back in its plastic bag. It had been the best biology lesson of the year. I was satisfied.

After class, I thought about the ethics of what I had just done. After all, this is the sort of thing that convinces some people to become vegetarians. But I considered what an interesting and stimulating experience it had been for me.

I had seen firsthand the remarkable interdependency and connectedness of body systems.

I had done what I set out to do.

I went over the class in my head as I drove home after school. As I pulled out of the parking lot, the familiar, yet strange, mix of scents wafted towards my nostrils, and I realized that I wasn’t ever going to forget this adventure. ⎫