Classroom Critters

One of the books that I drew inspiration from during my teacher preparation days was How 2 Gerbils, 20 Goldfish, 200 Games, 2000 Books, and I Taught Them How to Read by Steven Daniels. His first year of teaching in an inner city school was a disaster. But he learned from it and became a successful teacher. (Best teaching tip was that home visits are the most effective way to end discipline problems.) Kids love animals, particularly small furry ones. So, when I got through my first year of teaching (just barely), I embarked upon a thirty year search for the perfect classroom pet. I ignored the gerbils that Daniels used. I had had a pair of gerbils as a teenager and they were awful, bitey things.

After some pre-internet research I settled on a guinea pig. For the most part, it was good choice. My second graders had no problems getting Dr. Seuss in and out of his cage and he sat patiently on their desks and nibbled carrots out of their hands while they petted him. He peed a lot which grossed out some of the kids, but it didn’t smell so they put up with it mostly. But then mortality reared its ugly head and Dr. Seuss couldn’t stand up one day. A visit to the vet revealed a vitamin C deficiency (due to feeding him rabbit pellets instead of Guinea pig food) that was cured by vitamin drops in his water bottle. But I was faced with the knowledge that class pets take some extra care on my part and that death, and the accompanying trauma for students, was always a potential problem with small animals.

Faced with a decision, I chose to continue to have at least one animal in the classroom. First of all, kids loved it. Secondly, even reluctant readers were willing to read about the care and feeding of an animal that they were attached to. Third, the animal became mascot of sorts that made their classroom and teacher special. Plus, kids who showed responsibility for taking care of the animal, got the opportunity to take it home for the summer. I made a deal with every parent who stepped up to volunteer: if the family fell so in love with the animal that they didn’t want to give it up in the fall, they could keep it and buy me another one.

I’m not hard-hearted. I liked the little critters too. But they belonged to my students and I stayed as emotionally detached as possible. Things worked out pretty well, as I tried different pets. Many parents took me up on my offer to keep the animal they fostered over breaks. Every type of animal I tried had some particular drawback in terms of meeting either practical or educational requirements. Fish weren’t engaging or cuddly enough. The same was true for reptiles, amphibians, and crustaceans. Gerbils, hamsters, and sugar gliders were too bitey. Rabbits were too big and required too much of my time as I found out when my son volunteered us to foster his third grade pet for the summer (only fair right?)

A white rat named Nicodemus did quite well in every area except for smell. Rat urine is really strong. But the kids loved interacting with him in spite of my own personal distaste of animal which I developed in Vietnam. Mice were too short-lived and ferrets too active and smelly. I had just about given up on finding the perfect classroom pet when I ran across an article about chinchillas. I found a good deal on one and Chico entered into my world. He was perfect. Holding and petting a chinchilla is a bucket list experience you didn’t know you needed. Chico loved being held, was easy to take care of, produced little urine, and was easily trained using raisins as reward. Every lunch period my students vied to be a chinchilla walker. Using a rabbit harness, they took him for daily exercise. Or I should say he took them for a walk.

Such an unusual but lovable animal generated much curiosity on the part of the students which was the whole point of having a pet in the first place. They learned all about his adaptations to life in the Andres and how hard it was to acclimate them to lower elevations. They also learned about conservation and how many chinchillas have to die to make a coat for the fashion world (over 400.) it was really easy to get attached to the little guy. In fact, I never got a chinchilla back at the end of the summer. Every year I had to get a new one.

Then I transferred to eighth grade and student interest in a class pet wasn’t as strong. Whereas, most of my second and sixth graders wanted to participate in animal husbandry, a lot of the older students were too ”cool” to show enthusiasm for taking care of a class pet. They liked watching the chinchilla take their dust baths (hilarious), but were not dependable about giving it to them. My last chinchilla was a black one named Harry Houdini who was actually born in my classroom. After a great year of watching him grow into adulthood, like all of his predecessors, Harry went home for the summer and didn’t come back. A year or so later, the school district lawyer instituted a ban on classroom animals with fur in order to avoid lawsuits from asthmatic students.

I recently ran into a former student’s mother at Safeway. She told me about trying to contact me after going through her daughter’s sixth grade papers. Becky had so loved Nicodemus the rat that she had talked mom into getting her a hamster. The hamster’s eventual death along with my science classes inspired Becky to pursue medicine as a career and she is now a naval doctor. Mom had wanted to thank me but hadn’t known how to reach me. Kismet gave her the opportunity. Exhibit A against those who say teaching doesn’t pay?

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