Families don multiple masks during the pandemic—and one of them is being a zookeeper or an animal caretaker, said Sarah Stacke of National Public Radio, an American media organization. When schools in New York closed in March, Stacke’s son’s teacher, Mary Pfeifer, emailed parents to ask who would be willing to take care of classroom pets. Ms. Pfeifer is aware that Holly the Russian tortoise, Frisky the frog, and other pets are being taken care of. However, that doesn’t stop her from missing them.
Meanwhile, some teachers in Michigan are taking care of classroom pets that were removed from schools after Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced school shutdowns in March, stated Associated Press, via US News, an American media company. Scott Kefgen, who works at Harlan Elementary School in Birmingham, currently takes care of geckos, frogs, a gerbil, and more.
The Impact of Classroom Pets On Students
A survey by the Pets in the Classroom grant program found that 97% of participants said having a pet has been a positive experience, reported Pet Product News, a news website on pet-related products. 79% of teachers used classroom pets each week as part of their curriculum, with nearly 69% incorporating their pet into virtual learning. 56% had also told about the meaningful ways their pets have helped a student or students in the classroom.
79% of teachers saw an improvement in attendance thanks to their classroom pet while 98% saw an increase in empathy and compassion. 98% of teachers also saw an increase in student responsibility, as well as in self-esteem (93%). Increased social skills were reported by 96% of teachers while 98% saw an increase in student engagement. Interestingly, 88% saw a decrease in necessary student disciplinary measures because of their classroom pet.
According to a 2015 survey by the American Humane Association, an organization committed to ensuring the safety, welfare, and well-being of animals, the most common classroom pets adopted by the surveyed teachers were fish (30.97%), guinea pig (13.66%), hamster (10.56%), bearded dragon (7.83%), and leopard gecko (7.47%). The most pets among interviewed teachers were fish (30%), guinea pig (16%), rabbit (11%), hamster (11%), and snake (8%).
When asked how the teachers use their classroom pet, they said it is there to interact with but there is no teaching plan involving the pet (59.9%) and to use interactions with the pet as a reward for the students (56.1%). 49.1% of teachers said they teach formal lessons utilizing the pet. Among teachers who said they integrated their classroom pet into formal lesson plans, “Science and Nature” (87.5%) lessons were the most common followed by “Animal Care” (86.8%), “Responsibility” (79.5%), “Creative Writing” (49.8%), “Humane Education” (39.2%), and “Self-Care” (25.4%).
Among the primary benefits of having a pet in the classroom were learning animal care and compassion (42%), responsibility (24%), science and nature (20%), empathy (7%), social skills (4%), and others (3%). The respondents also felt that having a classroom pet improved social interactions in the classroom (69.5%), behavioral issues (60.8%), class participation (55.9%), attendance (16.9%), grades/academic performance (16%), bullying incidents (10.8%), others (6.7%), and none of the above (6.3%).
The challenges of classroom pets were additional cost for the animal outside the grant monies (65%), care for the pet outside of school hours (49.3%), managing the students’ interactions with the pet (16.9%), and distracting students from their schoolwork.
How Teachers' Families Are Taking Care of Classroom Pets
Kefgen explained, “The geckos are in the middle of my kitchen floor, my dining room table has the gerbil, and the frogs and the turtles are in this gigantic tank.” He’s not the only teacher who became a surrogate pet parent, according to John Wisely of Detroit Free Press, the largest daily newspaper in Detroit, Michigan.
Elizabeth Paddock was about to do the dishes in the kitchen when she saw a frozen mouse being thawed in a cup of hot water. Jon, who teaches ninth-grade biology at Clarkston Junior High School, and Elizabeth agreed to keep three snakes, a skink, a turtle, and a bearded dragon. The Paddock family has twin boys, 10, who enjoyed transforming a spare bedroom into a zoo for the animals. The twins played with the animals and studied in that room.
Scott Doty, who teaches biology at Berkley High School, has about 30 aquariums in his classroom housing approximately 300 fish. Doty cannot move the aquariums so he drops by the classroom early in the morning when the custodians are in the school.
Doty also takes care of a ball python, a tarantula, a bearded dragon, and a colony of Madagascar hissing cockroaches. Third-grade teacher at Ferndale Upper Elementary School Linsay Gonska said she had placed 12 chicken eggs in an incubator in early March. She brought the incubator home when school shutdowns were announced. Two eggs hatched, and one chick made it.
Gonska did not want the surviving chick to be lonely, so she and her husband bought three more to keep it company. She commented, “It's a little nerve-racking, but it's fun, too, because I take the chicks outside and put them in the grass." Some teachers are utilizing technology to let their students see their beloved classroom pet. For example, Amy Keel, a preschool teacher at the Centerline Early Childhood, said her colleague, Tina Grimonte, brings Hudson the hamster to their Google meet session to let the kids see and greet him.
Families Also Lend A Hand
The Agha family agreed to take in Holly the tortoise. Christine Topalian-Agha said Aram, her six-year-old son and Pfeifer’s student, is the tortoise’s primary caretaker. The tortoise lives in Aram’s bedroom housed in a 3-foot container with plants, bark flooring, and a bath. Christine noted, “She's given Aram something very special, something [of] his own that he manages and takes care of."
Frisky the frog is presently housed in the Dally family’s apartment in Brooklyn. The Dally household doesn’t see the frog as a demanding houseguest. Cleo, 9, and Emma, 5, said Frisky loves playing with his reflection in the walls of his enclosure. Cleo and Emma’s father, Charles, added that his children “get a lot of enjoyment” out of Frisky. The father of two stated, “Especially at the beginning, they watched him a lot. Now, he's a part of the environment, kind of like the furniture."
Teachers and families are fostering classroom pets during the pandemic, entailing an additional responsibility for these groups. Taking care of pets may be a challenge but it has been proven to make families and teachers, including their children, happy and spark curiosity.