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August 21, 2007 > Pet Projects

Pet Projects

By Nancy Lyon

Shortly after the close of the school year, many classroom animals are surrendered to animal shelters. Summer vacation is on the horizon and school year "projects" are no longer of interest or their care becomes inconvenient.

The freedom of summer for students and teachers often becomes a death sentence for the animals that depend on them for care and ultimately...life.

Some 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 often teachers and children aren't really prepared for the challenges of a classroom animal. As a consequence, 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, receive 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?

The Tri-City Animal Shelter, where I volunteer as a rescue liaison, sees its share of unfortunate classroom animal rejects. Just recently five domestic, under socialized mice - a school science project - were turned in to an unknown fate. Why worry about mice? After all, they're just...mice. All life should be respected, and these tiny creatures depended on their caretakers to have compassion for their lives and not to be thought of as just "tools." Perhaps other options were considered, perhaps not, but the end was the same...despite rescue efforts, the innocent mice were not among those who made it out of the shelter alive.

At the beginning of last summer the shelter staff was appalled when a local high school teacher surrendered a classroom rabbit housed in a small, filthy fish aquarium. The poor rabbit was suffering from urine burns all over his rear end and general lack of care. Although neglected and traumatized, he was one of the lucky ones who went to rescue.

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, than it is in the best interests of the animal and the students to learn about them in other ways.

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