UPDATE, 2:28 pm Tuesday, Jan. 29:

The McMinnville School District ruled unanimously last night that high-school students will continue dissecting cats, according to animal activists who attended last night's board meeting.

"We were told the decision is final and we can not bring it up again next year," says Antoinette Marcel of the Yamhill County Cat Coalition. "They didn't care at all about the photos showing the students saying mocking, jeering things about the cat in the tray—in fact, they didn't even comment on them."

More as this story develops.

ORIGINAL STORY, 12:35 pm Monday, Jan. 28:

The McMinnville School District will vote tonight whether to continue the practice of dissecting cats in high school classrooms.

Animal-rights activists in the Yamhill County town of 32,000 have sparked a local controversy by demanding that the school district stop the cat dissections. But they don't expect the board to agree tonight.

"They said that the students found it an invaluable experience for their future careers," says Antoinette Marcel, a cat advocate with Yamhill County Cat Coalition. "Their passion for dissection is running things."

McMinnville High School students dissect cats in an AP Biology class. Because Oregon has banned the gassing of cats, the preserved bodies are purchased from Carolina Biological Supply Company in Burlington, N.C.

Eric Phelps, a coordinator with the Portland office of animal-rights group In Defense of Animals, says the dissections are the decision of one McMinnville biology teacher.

"It's a horrible practice," Phelps says. "This is undoubtedly how she learned, so she's keeping that tradition alive."

Phelps doesn't know whether other school districts in Oregon still use cats for dissection.

"The McMinnville school is the focus of this particular petition. We're a fairly small organization, and we can't be everywhere at once. We have a one-man office in Portland, which is me. We jump in where we can."

McMinnville School District officials have not responded to requests for comment.  

Marcel says one disturbing aspect of the old tradition is a new twist: Students using cell phones to take pictures of each other playing with the cat bodies. She says she has some of the photos.

"It was very disrespectful," she says.