Many classrooms across the country have classroom pets ranging from goldfish to chickens. Teachers hope to give young students lessons about responsibility, empathy and treating animals humanely. But is this a good idea? Elementary school teacher Amy Morgan tells me she likes having pets in the classroom, as long as the pets are only fish; anything more can be distracting. Even with fish, Morgan ended up having to take them home over summer break.
I remember back in the 70’s, bringing home two female hamsters to care for over a weekend. Unfortunately, those two female hamsters turned out to be one male and one female, and the female gave birth while she was in my care. She also ate some of her young. That was quite a weekend…
Aside from unfortunate mishaps pairing two species of the opposite sex in the same cage together, should teachers allow pets in the classroom? I believe that as long as the proper classroom pet is chosen and precautions are taken, valuable lessons can be learned.
Do Your Research first:
Educators need to do their research before bringing a pet into the classroom. Heidi O’Brien, communications coordinator for the National Association for Humane Education says: “A range of problems can arise when teachers fail to research a particular animal’s needs and behavior. For example, birds tend to be sensitive to drafts and changes in air temperature. Hamsters are nocturnal and may be sleeping during the school day.” Experts caution that there are certain pets that are never appropriate for classrooms. These animals include reptiles such as lizards and snakes, which could potentially cause salmonella; and other animals that are removed from the wild such as chinchillas and frogs. Animals like birds and rabbits aren’t easily handled by large groups of children and although they make good pets in the home, they are not well suited to life in a classroom.
What animals are appropriate?
My top pick for a classroom pet is a guinea pig. Guinea pigs generally like to be handled, seldom bite and they make cute noises when they’re excited. Guinea pigs can even recognize familiar voices and scents. When I was the humane educator at the Santa Barbara Humane Society, I would take students on tours of our shelter. Every time I walked into the room where the guinea pigs were housed they would start whistling because they recognized me as the person who would always give them treats. The children were always amused by this behavior, and some would later talk about how they wanted to adopt a guinea pig due to the good experience they had at the Humane Society.
Although children tend to want direct physical contact with a pet, fish tend to be a great addition to a classroom. Fish are colorful and active and can provide a soothing effect for children. Fish have also proven to be helpful in keeping children focused.
Rats and mice are social, easy to handle and simple to care for. Rats and mice are most appropriate for older children. Young kids tend to have difficulty holding these small rodents and they may become loose in the classroom. And of course, never put two of the opposite sex together.
Some schools are opting for not your typical household pet. My son Chase’s preschool has backyard chickens. In his short exposure to these chickens, Chase has learned immensely about caring for animals and has much more respect for where our food comes from.
Once careful research has been done and a classroom pet has been chosen, a teacher needs to make sure they are willing to be the responsible caregiver for the animal they have chosen. Classroom pet care should not be any different then caring for a pet in your home. The animal should not be left in the classroom when school is not in session; doing so may result in missed meals, a dirty cage and lack of water. Fish can be left over weekends, provided a time-released fish food capsule is given. Ensuring proper pet care demonstrates to students that even classroom pets need full time dedication. Teachers who provide proper care for classroom pets serve as humane role models for children.
These days many parents are taking an active role in their children’s classroom. When I was the manager at the Michigan Humane Society in Detroit, we would receive calls from concerned parents stating that their child’s classroom pet was not being cared for properly. These concerns were mostly rectified by an educational visit to the teacher. If you feel that care is lacking in your child’s classroom, you can approach the teacher and offer help in a friendly, constructive way. If the teacher admittedly cannot meet an animal’s needs, you can offer to help find a home for the pet, or recommend the Humane Society. If the animal’s welfare is in danger and there is no action taken by the teacher, you can contact the school principal or local animal control.
A classroom pet can be a valuable educational experience for children, teaching them about empathy, responsibility and respect. This may also be the only opportunity young children have to be up close and personal with an animal. If you are an educator thinking of adding a pet to your classroom, make sure to do your research, pick a proper animal and make a full-time commitment to that animal. Most importantly, when choosing a classroom pet, make a trip to your local humane society or animal shelter before you visit a pet store!
If you have an experience with classroom pets you’d like to share, please post your comments online following this column.