The Special Needs of Classroom Reptiles
Why keeping one may not be a good idea.
©1997 Melissa Kaplan
To many teachers, keeping a reptile in the classroom seems like a great idea - they are very interesting, can be used in numerous activities across the curriculum (language arts, math, science, art, etc.), and may be used to motivate students. Sounds great, right? Well, I urge you to please think again, taking into consideration the following...
General Keeping Issues
While there are some reptiles that are considered by experienced herpetologists and herpetoculturists to be "easy," few, if any, are really as easy as people who have never kept reptiles believe. You cannot, for example, leave most reptiles for more than a day.
Even if the animal doesn't require daily feeding, the enclosures, water, and food should be regularly checked for feces and spoiling. Many species require specific humidity levels to be maintained; in the absence of drip or mist systems, daily spraying is necessary.
Enclosures must be checked daily to make sure that the lights and heaters are working properly to maintain the necessary temperature gradients. Many reptile owners have gone away for the weekend only to return home to find their reptiles dead, bloated and decomposing from high ambient room air temperatures that unexpectedly increased the temperature inside of the enclosure. Others come home to find their reptile suffering from dehydration due to the lack of sufficient humidity, or with feces deposited in the rotting food or water bowls. Lights burn out, leaving the reptile in the cold and dark. Worse, some lizards and snakes are so adept at exploring their environments that their surprised owners come home to find their animal surrounded by shattered glass, fallen rocks or branches, or completely redecorated enclosures. Fires have been started by bored lizards looking for something to climb on and by cold lizards trying to get closer to their heat lamps.
Classroom Keeping Issues
Heating and Lighting
When the teacher provides dedicated heating and lighting equipment for the enclosures, it may not be enough when the facility heating or cooling is shut off. In schools, when the facility staff shuts off lighting and heating at night and they are not reinstated until the following school day, there is an often a big difference between the day and night temperatures, enough to make the existing heating equipment or ventilation in the enclosure grossly inadequate.
Many classrooms do not have hot and cold running water. Enclosures for many reptiles are too large to be carried out of the classroom and down a hall to a bathroom or maintenance area to be regularly cleaned and disinfected. There may not be an appropriate or convenient place to safely dispose of feces-contaminated substrate, paper towels and water.
The overcrowding poses another problem: fire hazards. Too few electrical outlets in--or not enough power supplied to--the classroom, results in too many things being plugged into too few outlets. If you are lucky, you may just blow a fuse. If you are not, you may burn down the building. Keeping combustible materials - papers, art supplies, books, etc. - within a couple of feet of lighting and heating equipment is also a hazard. Thus, the area in which your reptile enclosures will reside must be kept free of hazards and have sufficient electrical resources. If you do not have the room, don't get a reptile.
Food and Feeding
Animal's Natural Cycles
Some reptiles are diurnal, others nocturnal. Some spend most of their time in the wild buried underground or under ground cover, logs or in rocky crevices; others spend as much time as they can disappearing into the foliage or blending into rocky outcroppings or grassy hummocks. Some spend most of the day with just the tip of their nose and perhaps a bit of convex shell visible above the surface of the water. Trying to force an animal to adapt to the classroom's attention span, interests, and schedule will not work. The animal's natural daily cycles must be respected and their hiding needs provided for.
When you provide the proper environment for many species, very often you will end up with what looks like an empty, lifeless enclosure sitting in the classroom. Over time, watering is delayed or forgotten. Feedings may be skipped as everyone loses interest and other activities take priority. The reptile becomes objectified as boring and perceived as not having any needs. Many reptiles may live a surprisingly long time while being subjected to poor, or even absent, care. Ultimately, however, there is only one possible outcome if the animal's environmental and psychological needs are not met. While death is a natural part of life, and students should learn that not providing proper care will result in the death of an animal, so much more may be learned by keeping the animal properly and discussing why certain animals may be inappropriate for classroom keeping.
Weekend and Vacation
Many teachers take their animals home over the weekend, either transporting the animal in its classroom enclosure, or having a duplicate setup at home in which to place the animal. Still others come into school at least once every weekend, and every day or two during longer vacation breaks, to check on the animals, feed and water them, and perform enclosure maintenance duties.
Sending the Reptile
Home with Students: Not a Good Option
Most teachers cannot afford to have two or three of everything in case crucial and expensive things like light bulbs, fixtures, water bowls, and vivaria are broken while in transit or at the student's home.
Provisions are rarely made to ensure that the animal will get necessary veterinary care if anything happens to it while in the student's care. Students and their parents are often unable or unwilling to provide food for the animal, especially if it requires buying live food such as crickets, or storing a supply of mice in the family freezer.
Issues of improper environment and physical risks to the reptile aside, there is another important factor, that of stress. While you are in the classroom, you are able to oversee the handling of the animal, supervise or handle yourself the daily cleaning and feeding chores, and you learn to recognize when the reptile is stressed. Weekend parents will not have this knowledge or experience. The result may be a reptile that spends the entire weekend hiding in the cold part of its enclosure (when not being mauled by your student's siblings and all the children in the neighborhood--and the parents and their friends), an animal who will not eat, and for whom it may take several days after being returned to the classroom before it returns to normal. Repeated experiences of this nature over the course of a semester will ultimately lead to a highly stressed animal who eventually gets very sick from systemic bacterial or parasitical infections.
There are some steps you can take to reduce the risk of injury to the students and animals. For example, shattered glass from enclosures may cause injury to students who have to walk or crawl over it; Plexiglas(r) may break but will not shatter or form the dangerous shards as does glass. During earthquakes, large, heavy objects can "jump" off of surfaces, sometimes being thrown high enough that they pass over objects in front of them without touching them. Enclosures must be secured to their surfaces to prevent them jumping off or falling over and hitting or crushing students.
Evacuating live animals from the classroom must also be planned and prepared for. From keeping carriers suitable for safely packing and transporting the animals, to assigning someone who will be responsible for packing up the animals and removing them to a safe location, to making sure that someone is responsible for seeing to it that these animals are cared for, with provisions made for heating, water and food, during the hours and days following such emergencies, is an essential part of pre-acquisition consideration and planning.
The above is excerpted from the introduction to my master's thesis, Classroom Reptiles. I undertook this project as a direct result of the horrors I have seen in the classroom in the way reptiles are kept and treated. I have also had my share of having neighborhood youngsters appear at my door, long after the pet stores have closed for the night, clutching a lizard or snake that they were given for the weekend, asking me to provide them with suitable food and housing for them, and have seen what still others were sent home with: too small enclosures, no heat, scanty information (if any) for the parents. Children who see reptiles cared for and shunted around like this do not learn to properly care and respect them. It is my hope that reptiles will be incorporated only if and where it can be done so properly: with the teacher walking into it eyes open and prepared to personally care for the reptile, or directly oversee the care, not only during the school days, but on school nights, weekends and holidays as well.
It is my recommendation that, if the reptile is going to be sent home with a student over vacation or long weekends, that the teacher make a site visit to the home, and discuss with the parents the specific needs of the animal, what they need to house the animal or what will be provided with it, rules or specific guidelines on handling, establishing and following daily schedules/routines, and what do to in case of emergency. In addition, the teacher should visit the student's home during the course of the holiday or vacation to assure that the animal is being cared for properly.
Inconvenient? Yes. A hassle? No doubt. But so is replacing a dead animal and explaining to your class why the animal died, or has stitches, or has lost a tail, or why it can no longer be kept in the classroom...
Okay, you've decided that keeping a reptile in the classroom is doable. So, which one is good to start out with? Many parents, humane societies, and school administrators believe that using animal artifacts and modeling is as effective as using live animals and taking a more hand's on approach. For information on the research on this and related topics, please read The Use of Reptiles in Public Education.
Excerpt from Master's Thesis Classroom Reptiles, Sonoma State University, Rohnert Park CA. 1997
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