Reptiles with Class

Exotic animal retailers have a unique opportunity to bring wonder and new learning experiences into local schools by encouraging and facilitating classroom pets.




As part of the outreach work I do for my shop, I go into an average of eight classrooms, from preschools to high schools, in a given week. I see classrooms that are bereft of animals altogether; I see classrooms with a goldfish bowl. I see classrooms with an array of animals of all sorts; I even see classrooms that seem more like a small zoo than a place for kids.


When I encounter a room with few or no animals, I try to gently introduce the idea that having non-human creatures present would be an inexpensive investment that would reap vast benefits for the kids. Over the years, I have talked to thousands of teachers regarding what animals might be appropriate and have learned a ton myself from those conversations.


Why have live animals at all in the classroom?


For many kids, this might be their only exposure to any kind of animal life, other than loose dogs or cats, rats, squirrels and birds, and thus the class might very well be their first personal exposure to a non-human living being. Is there a greater lesson that can be taught than empathy for another creature? Additionally, exotic animals in particular can be a conduit to lessons in geography, history and science.


When teachers come into my store, half the battle is already won. They have come to me for ideas, and believe me, I am there to give them some. Because the classroom is an utterly different environment than the home, there are considerations that must be made to have a successful installation.


Most teachers come to me envisioning a water turtle for their classroom; I am quick to try to put the kibosh on that. Water turtles are dirty and notorious as a vector for salmonella, and even though that reputation is wildly overblown, any time a child gets an upset tummy thereafter, fingers will be pointed. Speaking of which, water turtles are rapacious carnivores and quite happy to try to remove those pointing fingers. And though the turtle itself might be inexpensive, the setup required to do right by the turtle will be surprisingly expensive. I would say that roughly two-thirds of water turtles I encounter in classrooms are improperly housed, and it breaks my heart.


Tortoises, while more expensive than water turtles, cost no more to set up and have the benefits of being docile and much easier to maintain. A lukewarm bath in the morning followed by a nice salad, and your work is done. Because salmonella is waterborne, tortoises are far less likely to spread it (even if they carry it) and engender less paranoia on the part of parents.


There are also many lizards that are good candidates for the classroom. The two classics are, of course, leopard geckos and bearded dragons. They are both scrub inhabitants, and so a “desert” terrarium can be ideal for them. The fact that the dragons are diurnal also works well, as kids love to see activity. They also grow at such an accelerated rate that, if one starts the school year with a baby, by the end of the school year, you have a ready-to-breed adult (and thus the possibility of new babies for the following year).


I would also strongly recommend crested geckos for classrooms. On the downside, they are, like the leopards, nocturnal. However, as these creatures are arboreal, they often sleep while sunning themselves. The fact that they do well in densely planted and relatively cool terraria means that kids might find the game of discovering where they are in the cage to be infinitely fascinating.


Schools are, by their nature, densely populated by humans, so it is a good idea to avoid any easily stressed animals. Nothing is more stress-prone than a chameleon, and so, as innately intriguing as they might be, they are a truly terrible choice for a high-traffic class environment.


My biggest problem with lizards, turtles and tortoises in schools is that they teach relatively little beyond the ideas I mentioned above. Kids seem to have a natural affinity for them and are prone to anthropomorphizing them, which, granted, is nice enough. But when it comes to exotics, it seems to me that half the point is to extend children’s points of reference into new cognitive terrain and demystify objects of often intense fear. If you want me to get excited about a classroom project, let’s talk snakes and spiders.


Many species of tarantula are quite docile, despite what fiction and films might have you believe. They are also insanely low maintenance, and, once kids are acclimated to them, quite charming. My favorite for this setting would be the pink toes, which have a lot of neat features: they are handleable, can live in colonies (a rare attribute in the arachnid world) and build fabulous and elaborate nests at the top of their enclosure. If youngsters object that they cannot see the spiders, simply pull the nest apart. The spiders will, without acrimony or retribution, obligingly reconstruct it.


I maintain that nothing is easier to keep and more rewarding in a child’s realm of experience than a snake. There are so many good choices and working with them is so pleasurable, I am always shocked at how many teachers refuse to consider them.


The two standards for classroom snakes are corn snakes and boa constrictors, and there are good reasons why. They are typically unfazed by crowds and handling, inarguably beautiful and ridiculously hardy. If maintained properly, they rarely refuse a meal, and they are not picky, adapting to thawed out pre-frozen mice and rats. This eliminates the objections some parents will raise to having their offspring witness animals being killed. (To my way of thinking, this is an incredibly weird objection, especially when expressed by omnivores, but then, humans are weird.)


I also often see ball pythons and kingsnakes in schools, and while neither of them are bad choices, I would point out that balls can be picky feeders and are relatively easy to stress, and kings have a habit of gently “test biting” to see if something might be edible. Those tests sometimes include children’s hands.


If a teacher is considering diving into classroom pets, it’s important to remind them that some schools turn off the power over weekends, which could be disastrous for creatures dependent on specific temperatures. I also try to dissuade teachers from sending animals home with students over the summer. I understand that the intentions are good, and the kid might have a pretty good idea of what needs to be done. However, parents rarely do, and kids get distracted.


But here’s my most important piece of advice to educators: if you personally are trepidatious about an animal, or cannot accept it as a personal pet, don’t do it. Kids are smart. They will clue into your lack of confidence and cloak themselves in it. That’s not the lesson you want to teach.   PB


Owen Maercks has enjoyed being immersed in the world of professional herpetoculture for nearly 40 years. His store, the East Bay Vivarium in Berkeley, Calif., is one of the oldest and largest herptile specialty stores in the U.S.


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