Anatole France says it well: “ Until one has loved an animal a part of one’s soul remains unawakened.”
Children are naturally drawn to animals. They desire to have them as companions. As a teacher of elementary and middle school aged children I have observed this often. It was very important to my students to talk about their pet, bring in photos of their pet or have their pet make a classroom visit. It was also important to have a pet share the classroom. Over the years my classroom saw a variety of creatures not one of them purchased for that purpose. All our classroom pets came from the homes of students due to unforeseen allergies, a lack of appreciation on the part of an adult, or an adult that could not bear to have an animal ignored, as it was no longer popular with their child. I never turned one away.
There are two schools of thought concerning pets in the classroom. The first encourages the idea. It is felt that classroom pets promote leadership, develop character in students, teach compassion, respect, empathy, responsibility, and relieve stress. Pets give their companions joy, purpose, and teach the cycle of life. It is not unusual for a child to grieve the loss of a pet prior to a relative.
The second school of thought discourages having pets in the classroom. According to PETA having pets in the classroom encourages breeders to continue providing smaller animals such as rats, hamsters, mice, lizards, etc. The animals live an unnatural life in small cages often poorly tended to. It is also felt that these animals have a higher chance of abuse.
I see merit on both sides of this issue. My fourteen-year-old son walked into his eighth grade science class to find the classroom mice being tossed from one end of the classroom to the other. Outraged he asked the teacher if he could take them home. All it took was a note from me and they were his. They ended up in my classroom as their nocturnal play kept him from getting his beauty sleep.
My students, after learning of the mice and their background studied how to care for and love them. On Halloween they gave them a small plastic pumpkin that the mice used as a sleeping spot…both curled up inside. The children loved to watch their friendship.
As the adult if you choose to teach the lessons of pet care, responsibility, empathy, etc. you have a huge responsibility to that pet. For all practical purposes this is your pet and responsibility. There will be expenses such as food, bedding, lodging, and perhaps vet care. I had a rabbit that required neutering and cold medicine. Don’t expect your school to financially support your efforts. The pet requires room to roam: do you have it? What happens on weekends or during breaks? It is stressful for the pet to be bounced from house to house during these times. The best option is that the pet has a second living area in your home. You must also consider the child with allergies. If such a child is enrolled in your class you may have to take the pet home for the school year. I discourage passing classroom pets on to students.
Over the years I have shared my classroom with many animals. There have been gerbils, hamsters, mice, fish, a rabbit, butterflies, and a dog sharing my classroom. Each brought a special aurora and unique experience to both my students and me. It is often the classroom pet my students remember.
Over time I will write about our many classroom pet adventures. Today l would like to share with you the story of our Black Moor Goldfish. A kindergarten student left his Black Moor in the school aquarium upon moving. The addition went unnoticed as they all swam happily watching the students pass in the hall.
Unfortunately there was another addition to the tank. Evidently African Dwarf frogs were raised in a middle school science class and several found their way into this tank. These frogs are aquatic coming to the surface only to breath. They are tongueless, toothless and have webbed feet with long sharp claws. The claws are used to tear food apart as the feet force it into the mouth and down the throat. That is exactly what the frog did to the Moor’s eye. I noticed the one eyed Moor along with several students. In the circular pink depression in the side of his head we could see the optic nerve.
We were quite distressed and went back to the room to call the vet to see if the fish needed to be destroyed. The vet was not pleased by the situation but said the Moor was probably not in pain at this time but should be removed from the tank. The class discussed the situation and we decided we needed to move the fish into our classroom.
I acquired the necessary equipment and set up the tank. The next morning we were off to capture a fish. This was not an easy task due to the size of the tank but we were ultimately successful. After transitioning the fish we needed to think of a name.
The first suggestion was ‘Lucky’. Immediately everyone shouted yes.
“Why on Earth would we name this fish Lucky?” I asked.
A sweet little girl replied, “Because he is lucky to be living with us.”
I smiled, Lucky it was.
Lucky lived with us for four years. Eventually black-scaled skin covered the area where the eye was missing. He or she was a good swimmer and eater. Lucky spent the summers on my kitchen counter, which I enjoyed. The students new to my classroom looked forward to a year with Lucky and former students visited.
Finally it was Lucky’s time to pass. We discussed his difficulties and the fact that he was in the process of dying. It was quick, two or three days. We took Lucky out to the courtyard filled with warm sun, spring flowers, and sweet smells. A hole was dug, Lucky was placed in it and covered with soil. A stone was placed on top of Lucky’s resting place to keep it from being disturbed. We each said something we loved about Lucky and stood there for a moment. We headed inside.
When we returned we got back to work without much fuss or sadness. I feel we all realized Lucky had a good life with us. I did notice over the year that students and their friends would visit the spot in the courtyard or say that that is where we buried Lucky. There is no end to what Lucky taught us about the cycle of life, compassion, healing, and love.
In conclusion I promote the idea of classroom pets on the condition the teacher is willing to take on the extensive responsibly of pet care. Their lives are literally in your hands. These animals, no matter how small, have sweet souls which as Anatole France says, ‘awakens part of our soul’.