Group’s Charges Thrust Specimen Supplier Into Spotlight

By Peter West — February 20, 1991 4 min read

From its humble beginnings in the late 1920’s--when its founder realized that he could profit from selling surplus specimens he had collected to fellow professors--the Carolina Biological Supply Company has grown into what company literature calls “the leading supplier of biological and science-teaching materials in the world.”

Based in Burlington, N.C., the firm has long been a trusted supplier of materials to precollegiate biology teachers, who currently account for fully half of its annual income. While the company does not disclose its annual revenue, published accounts put that figure at approximately $25 million.

The privately owned firm has always gone about its work quietly, and rarely found itself in the public limelight.

All that changed radically last fall, when People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, an animal-rights group headquartered in Washington, accused the firm of maltreating animals and released a videotape that purported to document the charges.

The company, for its part, terms peta’s allegations “false, reckless, and inflammatory” and based, in many cases, on “unattributed quotes made by anonymous sources.”

Peta, the company charges, simply is maligning the firm to promote its calls for a national ban on the use of all animals and animal products.

Founded in 1927 by Thomas E. Powell Jr., a professor of biology and geology at Burlington’s Elon College, the company initially served only colleges and universities.

But, according to a company spokesman, when elementary and secondary schools began to stress the importance of science education, the firm turned to them to fulfill Mr. Powell’s goal of offering science educators “everything they need to plan, build, and equip a laboratory.”

And while in recent years the company, now headed by Mr. Powell’s son, has diversified into sports equipment and educational videos, it is most closely identified in the minds of many teachers with the fetal pigs, frogs, and other animals the firm sells for dissection in high-school science laboratories.

However, company spokesmen8say, dissection specimens represent only ''a small percentage” of its K-12 sales.

The company’s 1,304-page catalogue contains fewer than 150 pages of preserved plants and animals, animal skeletons, and “biomounts,” or dissected specimens encased in acrylic plastic.

The rest is a dizzying array of products including books and videotapes on threatened and endangered species, prepared microscope slides, and such obscure items as replicas of Grecian urns used in anthropology courses.

And, as peta acknowledges, the catalogue also features alternatives to preserved dissection specimens that are acceptable to animal-rights activists.

The company’s public-relationsel10lembarrassment stemmed from peta’s “undercover investigation,” in which members of the group worked at the firm and videotaped alleged cruelty against cats and other animals. Portions of that tape aired on an ABC television news show last year.

While officials of Carolina Biological deny that the adverse publicity has affected sales, they are still wary of the media.

Harry Schoffner, a spokesman for the firm, required Education Week to submit its questions in writing, and he responded in kind.

Meanwhile, peta has mailed copies of its findings to science teachers nationwide.

In a 24-page document called “Dying for Biology,” as well as in the videotape, “Classroom Cut-ups,” the group charges that over the course of a year, Carolina Biological violated numerous provisions of the federal Animal Welfare Act.

It alleges that animals routinely were viciously mistreated by company employees, and that, in many cases, animals were embalmed while still alive.

In the wake of the allegations,4school districts from Arizona to Pennsylvania considered calling a halt to dissection--or simply decided to stop purchasing materials from the company--as a direct result of the campaign.

One anecdotal indication of the campaign’s success to date is that educators who oppose dissection often cite peta’s allegations, published in “Dying for Biology,” that India exports frogs, which are natural predators of insects, while importing insecticides.

Yet they frequently seem to be unaware of, or fail to acknowledge, the source of the anecdote.

Carolina Biological says that it obtains frogs from many sources, including a Mexican company that raises them specifically for lab use.

Mr. Schoffner notes that despite the graphic images on the videotapes and in the brochures, the District Attorney’s Office of Almance County, N.C., found peta’s charges unfounded and declined to investigate.

In addition, no other state or local agency has filed charges, he added.

The firm has, however, decided to end its longstanding practice of allowing federally licensed dealers to kill cats on its property. The firm says that these dealers, who are subcontractors, were the ones videotaped by the animal-rights workers.

A version of this article appeared in the February 20, 1991 edition of Education Week as Group’s Charges Thrust Specimen Supplier Into Spotlight