The Next Generation
By Melissa Breau
Pets in the Classroom is working to expose the next generation to animals by encouraging teachers and retailers to supply pets to classrooms all over the country.

For many in the industry, their love of pets started when they were young. They may have had a pet hamster or snake, or were in charge of feeding the fish in the household aquarium. These experiences inspired them to create a career and build their life around a love for living things. These memories are also what inspire people to become pet owners as adults.

But many children today aren’t given a chance to have those same experiences. Instead, video games, computers, iPods and cell phones have become kids’ constant companions.

This means that if the industry hopes to continue to thrive as it has thus far, it needs to actively cultivate the next generation of pet owners–and the Pets in the Classroom program, run by The Pet Care Trust, is aiming to do just that.

When school bells ring next month and kids return to their desks, more of them will be returning to classrooms with a bird, hamster, reptile or fish tank in the room, thanks to the Pets in the Classroom program. As of May, the program had already helped over 350 teachers add pets to their classrooms this year, and hopes to help 700 classrooms in total acquire pets by the end of 2010.

“America has a love affair with its pets, but there are many kids who have not had the opportunity to have a pet at home,” says Steve King, executive director of The Pet Care Trust. “So this program has potential to reach thousands of kids who, for whatever reason, can’t or don’t have a pet.”

The program also serves to expose students to different types of pets. Some may have cats or dogs at home, but have never had the chance to interact with reptiles or birds. The program allows teachers to choose the pet they feel will fit best into their classroom. King says there have been a number of lizards and snakes chosen, many small animals and even a handful of birds. One classroom, he says, even has a Mexican red-kneed tarantula.

Allowing students to interact with these animals teaches them to appreciate new species and to learn about the needs of these different pets. “It has been a pleasant surprise, as we’ve seen the requests come in, to see the wide variety of animals that teachers have selected for their classrooms,” says King.

The program works to educate teachers about responsible pet ownership and even provides them with lesson plans they can use that incorporate their classroom pet. The pets provide a doorway through which teachers can teach students about other parts of the world and the habitats found there.

Retailers are teachers’ natural allies in achieving these goals. Because the program reimburses teachers for the amount they spend on their classroom pet and the supplies it requires, the teachers’ first stop after receiving their certificate is the pet store. Once there, King says, “the biggest thing that we’d like to see would be a close relationship develop between the pet store itself and an individual classroom.”

Ideally, those pet stores would become resources for these teachers; a place they can turn with any individual questions about their chosen animals and its needs. King also suggests that retailers can offer to interact directly with the classroom by visiting with different types of animals so the kids can see, touch and learn about them, including those species that might not be appropriate choices as classroom pets. Or the class could come visit the store on a field trip to see the variety of animals available and learn a little about each of their habitats.

King says that many retailers have had similar programs on their own for years; the advantage to the Pets in the Classroom program is that teachers are reimbursed for their expenses.

Park Pet Shop in Chicago, Ill. has relationships with a few local teachers. “We have several schools that come into the store regularly for supplies,” says Jim Sparks, the storeowner. He sees the relationships he has developed with these teachers as an opportunity to invest in the future of the industry. Sparks has visited the schools with some of the store’s animals as well as had classes out to his store. “The more the kids are exposed to anything ... the more apt they are to try and experience it later on or get into it as a hobby,” he says.

He has even created small coupons, the size of business cards, that include his store’s address and hours, and can be redeemed for a free goldfish. He staples the coupons to informational sheets about the animals he hands out to the kids on his school visits. While he says the cards haven’t created a huge bump in sales, the cards add to the exposure the store receives from its relationship with the schools. 

For retailers who haven’t had a teacher come in looking for supplies, Pets in the Classroom is working to develop a more direct relationship between retailers and local schools. Right now, if a retailer wants to reach out to a school in their community, unless it has already received a grant request from a school in that area, the program is unable to point the retailer to a school that might be interested. But as the program continues to grow, and its database grows, King says it will be better able to help. “We’ll have many more schools and  classrooms in our database. Then, if a retailer in any part of the country contacts us, we’ll be able to locate someone within their general geographic area.”

Perhaps the simplest way for retailers to get involved, however, is to sponsor a classroom, either through the program or directly. Retailers can sponsor a classroom of 30 children for as little as $150 through the program’s website (

Or, if they know of a classroom that needs support in order to have a classroom pet, King suggests they donate directly to that classroom. “Provide them with a certain amount of free equipment or the animals as a direct supporter or benefactor. It takes it outside of the specific Pets in the Classroom program, but it still fulfills that same basic goal of ours,”–which he emphasizes is the important thing–“to introduce pets in classrooms across the country.”