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June 22, 2010 > Ohlone Humane Society: Classroom Critters

Ohlone Humane Society: Classroom Critters

By Nancy Lyon

In June, shelters notice an increase of small animals such as guinea pigs, rabbits, hamsters, reptiles and other small critters being surrendered. It's usually a red flag that summer vacation is on the horizon and many of last year's classroom pets are no longer of interest or have become inconvenient to care for.

Perhaps it's out of ignorance or just a matter of convenience to think that these small, dependent creatures will miraculously find a wonderful new life. The reality is that while already overburdened shelter people may scramble to try and fulfill that fantasy, it can end up as a death sentence for the no longer useful innocent animal.

Many teachers believe that bringing an animal into their classroom helps children to develop a sense of responsibility and empathy for animals. But caring properly for the animal's needs involves a considerable investment in time and effort and many teachers and children aren't really prepared for the challenges of a classroom animal. Often the animal suffers neglect and mishandling.

The National Association of Humane and Environmental Educators (NAHEE) asks that teachers consider some issues before bringing an animal into their classroom:

* Evenings, weekends, holidays and summer vacations pose unique problems for classroom animals. Sending them home with students - or relinquishing them to animal shelters at the end of the school year - sends a message that animals are a part-time responsibility, not a full-time commitment. Are they willing to assume full responsibility for the animal both at school and at home?

* Do students have enough self-control and maturity to safely and humanely handle an animal?

* Does the classroom have an appropriate space for secure caging, away from heavy traffic areas? Will this area support housing with the correct temperature, adequate space, sunlight, shade and a place for the animal to hide and be unobserved?

* Is the teacher able to pay for and provide good food, blankets, toys, bowls, chewing materials, grooming, equipment and other supplies (depending on the species)? What about routine and emergency veterinary care?

* Is the teacher knowledgeable about that particular species? Will the animal be given adequate opportunities to exercise, attention, and gentle handling?

* Is the animal included in the school emergency evacuation plan?

* Could the animal cause injury, allergic response, or transmit disease to a child? Will the school accept liability? Do any parents object to an animal in the classroom?

* Is the teacher prepared to deal with student's questions or grief if the animal becomes sick or dies?

Shelters see their share of unfortunate classroom animal rejects. School "science projects," aka under-socialized and frightened animals, in an unfamiliar environment face an unknown fate. Why worry about them? After all, they're just mice, domestic rats or you name it... they are the "disposables."

Certain animals are not suited for classroom pets. Wild creatures, reptiles, turtles, rabbits, hamsters and rodents can quickly become stressed by too much handling, environmental changes of temperature and drafts, and can become ill and die. They can also be a serious health threat to students, carrying dangerous bacteria such as salmonella. Some are fragile and can be injured by children just wanting to snuggle with them.

When you consider the realities of classroom animals, you wonder what the real lesson that is being taught. All life should be respected, and these small creatures depend on their caretakers to have compassion and respect for their lives and not to be thought of as just "tools."

The Humane Society of the United States states that "When a teacher decides to have a classroom 'pet,' students look to their teacher as a model of responsible care for that animal. They notice how the animal is treated and they pick up on the attitudes the teacher project through both words and deeds. A teacher's interaction with the animal influences the students' own attitudes and behavior toward the animal and possibly other animals they encounter outside of school. To be a humane role model a teacher must (1) consistently provide all the care the anima needs, (2) establish a classroom code of humane treatment, and (3) remain vigilant in detecting and preventing students' over handling, mistreatment, or theft of the animal."

Even with the best of intentions, teachers may be faced with not being truly able to meet even the most basic needs of a classroom animal. If they fail to provide proper care, the underlying message to the students is that caring for an animal or bringing it into this world is not serious long-term commitment and that its life is not important.

If a pledge cannot be made to properly care for a classroom animal its entire life and not just for a few short months during the school year, than it is in the best interests of the animal and the students to learn about them in other ways.

"I hope to make people realize how totally helpless animals are, how dependent on us, trusting as a child must that we will be kind and take care of their needs... [they] are an obligation put on us, a responsibility we have no right to neglect, nor to violate by cruelty." - James Herriot, English Veterinarian and Author

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