University of New Mexico, Bachelor of Science (Biology)
1988 - 1992

Lisa Hepner’s polite request for an alternative to a fetal pig dissection in her biology course resulted in a detailed interrogation of her beliefs by the course instructor. After initially being refused she was finally successful, becoming the first University of New Mexico student to be granted an alternative to dissection. She then entered into a three year struggle with the Department of Biology to develop a conscientious objection policy that would ensure alternatives were provided to all students who did not wish to dissect. After putting her proposal into writing and soliciting signatures of support from professors, doctors, veterinarians, and nurses, she was finally successful, with the Department implementing a conscientious objection policy in 1991.

Lisa then established a statewide dissection hotline to help other students implement alternatives to dissection at their own campuses. In 1994 she published her book Animals in Education: The Facts, Issues and Implications, which is filled with detailed information about dissection in teaching in the US, and detailed advice for other students in following in her footsteps.

Hepner, L., “Winning alternatives to dissection at the University of New Mexico”.

 My struggle for an alternative

In 1989, I was taking an Introductory Biology Class. The first semester proved to be exciting. I realized that I loved the study of Biology, and decided to declare Biology as my major. Then the second semester approached, when I found out that we would have to dissect a fetal pig. As soon as I found out about the dissection, I told my teaching assistant (TA) about my objection and I requested an alternative. He immediately said there was no alternative. Upon questioning him further, he said he didn’t think an alternative would be possible, but that I could talk to the instructor of the course. All the while, he tried to discourage me and made it sound impossible to get an alternative.

 I made an appointment to talk to the instructor of the course about requesting an alternative to dissection. He questioned me and examined my motives like a police officer doing an interrogation. He told me that I would have to get used to dissection, that there was no alternative, and that the fetal pigs were taken from the slaughterhouse anyway, etc. I told him my stance, told him that I was a vegetarian, and told him that I would never perform a dissection. I pointed out to him that the syllabus stated that the purpose of the pig dissection was to learn human anatomy, so I came equipped with human atlases, study manuals, etc., that I requested the right to study from. He told me that I would still have to study fetal pig anatomy, and that I would still have to take the practical exam from the formalin-preserved pig. I told him that the whole purpose for requesting an alternative was not to participate in the dissection, at all.

 He told me that if the TA agreed to test me from the diagrams of the fetal pig that I needed to study, then that would be okay with him. It was settled; my alternative was to study diagrams of the fetal pig and be tested from them.

 I made an individual appointment with the TA. He told me that he had to make the test harder for me since I chose the alternative. The test was oral. He asked me forty questions (compared to the twenty the other students answered) and wanted me to give a detailed oral response. Not only did I have to name the organ, or vessel, but I also had to talk about the function, the interrelationship, and other details. I passed with flying colors. I missed two questions out of forty, and received an “A” on the practical.

 Winning a conscientious objection policy

My next mission was to make it easier for other students to have an alternative. I didn’t feel their ethics should be scrutinized, or that they should be punished by choosing an alternative.

 The campaign to get alternatives to dissection on a wide scale was a three year battle, filled with unreturned phone calls and broken promises. The details of the campaign are quite extensive but basically it was a lot of run around. I was told I needed to talk to one person, and then I was told I needed to talk to another person. After wasting my time and energy on the instructors, lab coordinators and TA’s, and getting no results, I turned to the Head of the Department. Even then, I could not get him to return my phone calls. Several months went by with unreturned phone calls.

 My success finally came in 1991 when I put my proposal into writing. I wrote statements of exactly what I wanted. I requested that ALL students be offered an alternative, and that the alternative be announced. I requested that the students choosing the alternative would not be penalized or harassed, etc. I put it all down in writing.

 Then I started soliciting signatures for the proposal. I tried to mainly find doctors, veterinarians, nurses and professors who would sign the proposal. After acquiring around twenty signatures, I sent the proposal along with the endorsements to the Head of the Department, the individual biology instructor, the lab coordinator, the teaching assistants, and the Dean of Arts and Sciences.

 I finally got an appointment with the Head of the Department of Biology. A sympathetic veterinarian that I knew went with me. The Head of the Department said that he could not promote alternatives and that he still felt they were inferior to dissection but that they would offer alternatives. He gave me a copy of the new 1991 "Statement and Philosophy on the Dissection and Use of Preserved Specimens in the Courses Taught in the Department of Biology, The University of New Mexico", which stated that, “…Members of the faculty are keenly aware that some students object to dissection on moral, philosophical or religious grounds. As part of our Department’s desire to serve the needs of a diversity of students, these objections are respected. On the other hand, many of our faculty believes that the only way for students to really learn anatomy is to require them to do dissections of invertebrate and vertebrate animals and of plants. If religious or other strong personal commitments dictate that dissection of preserved or fresh specimens of organisms is unacceptable to certain sensitive individuals, we will provide, within the limitations of our time and resources, an alternative, which, in our collective opinion, may minimally reduce the educational experience of the course in question.”

 While I wasn’t too happy with the slant of the policy toward dissection, it did state that they would offer an alternative. The head of the department even told me that he told all the professors to announce that there were alternatives available.

 An article in the New Mexico Daily Lobo the next day read, “Dissection of animals will no longer be a requirement for all biology students, now that an animal rights activist has convinced a reluctant biology department to offer alternatives.”

 Reaching out

After this long battle, I started a dissection hotline for the state of New Mexico and made student information packets. I also took all the information I had received, and all the contacts and resources I had collected, and ended up writing a 300 page book entitled Animals in Education: The Facts, Issues and Implications.

 I had the honor of speaking at the National Animal Rights Conference in Washington, DC in 2000. And while I’m not currently as involved in animal rights as I used to be, due to pursuit of other writing projects, I can still occasionally be found heading off to Neah Bay, Washington to save the whales from being hunted by the Makah Indians.