****Disclaimer: this is the truth. I grew up on a ranch, and I adore animals. I have raised many dogs from youth to old age, and cats. I have saved animals from the brink of death and nursed them back to health multiple times. I have also seen the gruesome side, and have seen my fair share of death from multiple reasons. I am an animal advocate and lover. The fact that many animals I cared for in my life died prematurely is in no way representative of my love and passion for animals. One of my job dreams as a child was to be a veterinarian or dog trainer. I do not take my human-animal responsibility for granted.****
Nothing brings children closer to attention than participating in the life of an animal.
My first years teaching preschool I had rats. They were lovely. And yet, my amazing first co-teacher had a major aversion to them. One could say she and I were the perfect balance of energies. She is naturally gifted at listening to and telling stories. She understood the families and the children in a way I never did. I learned that from her-and I am forever grateful for her mentoring in that way.
Sadly for her, she arrived at our job at the San Francisco State University Children’s Center two hours before me. This was glorious for me-I got to sleep longer. But what it meant for her was she was the first to arrive on the scene.
For a few days we had been noticing some “odd behavior” from our rat Jamalita. She was so named for her predecessor, Jamal. PRO-TIP: DO NOT LET YOUR CLASS NAME THE PET. You should do this job on your own. Vote on other shit, teacher lady. Yes, teaching the democratic process is highly educational and awesome, but not for animal names. Just trust me. You don’t want a million guinea pigs named Brownie or the 6th goldfish named Goldie.
But I digress.
She arrived at work and noticed that Jamalita had shoved herself into her little house and had eaten her own feet off. Or something else terrible I blocked out the specific details of. I’m sure my amazing friend is still scarred.
She was distraught by the time I arrived. From what I can remember of this from 25 years ago, things progressed quickly and Jamalita was not with us much longer. For those that have personal comments in their heads right now about my and my teaching partner’s ability to care for animals and children, rest assured: most rats live to 2. She was 2. And both my partner and I have raised children from infancy and they survived. SO, there’s that.
Next came the guinea pigs. Another friend was pregnant with her second human baby and she had two guinea pigs her preschool son had raised. Someone in the house was allergic and they needed rehoming. The cavies were named Salt and Pepper. They were given to me as “brothers.”
Unfortunately-it turns out they were not brothers but brother and sister. In the animal world this relationship means nothing but potential mate, and soon we had several litters of babies to deal with.
This was, of course, highly interesting, entertaining and exciting for the children. For me and my teaching partner, it was a disaster. But by this time we each had our own classroom and my attempts at animal husbandry were my own story. She kept children safe and healthy and happy and knew the name and occupation and personal hobbies of every parent/grandparent/family member that entered her room. I knew less about those things (and so so much more), but was highly enthusiastic about the animal situation.
There was a brief and alarming moment of animal crowding, even though I had 3 pens by now. Terrifyingly, Salt ate some of her young. I didn’t know that was even a potentiality, until I arrived one morning to see Mama in the cage with 2 babies where yesterday she had 4. It was startling, and made gruesome sense. I was somehow forcing Sophie’s Choice on my poor guinea pigs by lack of knowing. I re-homed all the babies immediately, and petitioned the parent-teacher association to pay to neuter Pepper, to relieve the exhausted Salt, the mama of many.
Luckily, that ended the litters after two, and when I moved to my next preschool, Playmates Parent-Teacher Cooperative, I brought Salt and Pepper with me as classroom pets.
Things were calm and normal for a long time, and the guinea pigs were happy and healthy. When I left teaching preschool, a parent from the preschool adopted them and I have no doubt they went into the sunset happily.
When I was teaching 3rd grade at Creslane from 2007-2012, I had a guinea pig I adored again. Her name was Peanut Butter. I adopted her for free from a dad on Craigslist. His kids had wanted her, along with her sister Jelly. Jelly had bit the dust early on in his home. Peanut Butter was bored, but still sweet. Then their family got a puppy. The kids forgot about good old Peanut Butter. So, up on Craigslist she went where I found her. My class adored her, and her name was shortened to Peanut. I had Peanut as a class pet for about 4 years.
After I’d had Peanut about a year, a student named Izzy and her brother Reggie brought BUNNIES TO SCHOOL ON THE BUS, and the bus driver actually believed them that they had permission. Somehow that day Mom was busy and distracted as moms are apt to be, and they snuck out of the house with 3 meat rabbit baby bunnies in a cardboard box. Izzy and Reggie showed up and said, “here are the bunnies you said you wanted to see, teacher!”
Reggie’s teacher, and my friend that coordinated Garden Club with me, was a good sport as was I. I’ll never forget the hilarious realization of how that all actually happened versus what the kids thought. I got chewed out by a bus driver, and mom swore that she’d check box, backpack and lunchbox for a while.
While the bunnies were there, however, Peanut and one of the bunnies fell in love. I mean it was like a 1970’s soap commercial. They were just into each other. I thought I was supporting an inter-species, same-sex relationship until a few months later when I realized that my bunny, so named Regina in honor of Reggie, was actually male. We changed his name to Reggie and changed our pronouns. Luckily they were never a miracle of inter-species procreation, because I couldn’t have handled more babies.
I loved Reggie and Peanut. My students loved Reggie and Peanut. They loved each other. And yet, the summer before I started teaching at Central Linn they both died.
Insert the saddest music here. I was totally heartbroken. Reggie was the sweetest and kindest huge 20lb white bunny of love. He was about 5 when he died. Peanut had lived about 6 years. I adored those sweet animals. They were part of all of my 3rd and 6th grade stories.
My second year in 6th grade, I acquired a Leopard Gecko that I got with a small animal grant from Petco. I used the grant money to pay for his set up, not him. I got him from a small owner-run pet shop in Eugene. Kevin was a sweet, 5 month old Leopard Gecko, and he was cute. He hated people, however. He bit someone almost every time we took him out. Some of my 6th graders from my previous school were naturals with him and he didn’t bite them, or they were highly tolerant of his jaw attacks. They just kept their hoodie sleeves down and held him, anyway. The results of his biting were we kinda avoided touching him, and that made cleaning his cage challenging.
Well, once I arrived at my first Kindergarten assignment, Kevin was acting sluggish. And in the middle of a parent-teacher conference, he had a seizure of some kind, hit his head against the wall of his enclosure, and died.
I guess he’d had enough.
My fish in my tank all died. I got more. They died, too. I decided to keep the tank as a water feature sans fish.
I got a guinea pig-I know how to raise them, and they are so lovable. We had Brownie long enough to vote on her name and watch her play in her little pen. She died less than a month later. I came in one morning and she was dead. I think it got too cold in the classroom overnight.
Then I got a bunny. The kids named her ( you guessed it) BROWNIE. I took her home over spring break. She played in her play yard and frolicked and had a good time. She ate a weed that is poisonous to rabbits. I did not know the weed was poisonous to bunnies, but I had a lot of that weed in my yard. The next morning she was dead.
The parents in my classroom teased me a little. One said, “I’m going to call PEETA.” I was devastated and so so so worried about my kiddos. We’d already done an ofrenda (altar) and did a Dia de Los Muertos celebration for our passed pets. I was just honest. I told them what had happened and we moved on.
I had nothing more than fish for the last 3 years. This year I was feeling brave and told the kids at the beginning of the year that they were earning a lizard.
They did earn one, and one of my students is from a family that raises and rescues Bearded Dragons. She is the one saying “Dino, wanna head bob?” in the video. She’s had him for four years. Dino is the sweetest reptile ever. He lets kids hold him, stroke him, love on him. He holds on to their shirts and climbs up their shirt to their necks.
Dino has been anxious a little, though. He came to us worried about his move, and then his heat was off at first. I might have
kindofjustalittlegottenfreakedoutandlostit been nervous, and told his last family I am not going to lose a pet again ever due to my ignorance! But he’s feeling better. He walked around our science room today, with the kids in a circle watching him walk around. It was pretty adorable.
SO what is my point? No matter how challenging it is, having a class pet is a good idea. It is good for your children on so many levels, and it is good for you. If nothing else, it is a good story.
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