We’re seeing an unfortunate trend lately: The demise of the class pet.
When I was growing up, many classes had pets, and every science room had at least one living creature in it, if not a whole bunch. Who can forget watching the classic CBC series with the Riverbank Gang in Once Upon a Hamster, and wanting a talking guinea pig?
From aquariums, to hamsters, rats, guinea pigs and rabbits, we would see classes either adopt, fundraise to buy, or have the parent association provide funds for a class pet. And sometimes, as a reward or as a responsibility, a different classmate would take the pet home on weekends.
Now, with allergies, phobias and other concerns, some school districts have forbidden the class pet. That learning enrichment has been removed from our children’s schooling. Which is unfortunate, because there are so many harmless pet options that pose no threat to children’s allergies or safety.
Classic class pets are guinea pigs, hamsters and gerbils. More recently, rats and geckos have become very popular in schools that still allow pets.
Guinea Pigs are great pets. They’re a nice size so that even the youngest student can handle them without fear of hurting them, they have a five to eight-year lifespan so they can be a bit of a legacy. They vocalize, making a funny "wheet wheet wheet" noise whenever they are happy or excited, which makes them very personable. Care is simple, fresh food, water and hay daily, and a change of bedding as required, they are very unassuming pets that make great additions to a classroom.
Hamsters are very popular because of their size and inexpensive startup costs, but not all hamsters make great pets. They need to be handled gently but confidently, something that some younger children are unable to do. We recommend gloves (leather palmed garden gloves work great) when handling them to reduce the chances of being bitten, and to give confidence to both the child and the hamster during handling. Handled and treated right, they can be a great classroom pet, and easy for the kids to take home for the weekend.
Gerbils are faster moving than hamsters, a little trickier to handle, but are nice in that they are sociable, and can be kept more than one to a cage. They tend to be a little cleaner, and really work the wheel in their cage.
Rats are now becoming a favourite as a class pet, as they are extremely friendly, very social and quite intelligent. The stigma of being farm pests or sewer dwellers is forgotten very quickly once you handle one of these great pets. With the added educational opportunities like maze running, they can enrich the learning environment, as well as being a great weekend visitor for students to take home.
If your school system is thinking about, or already has, removed animals from the classroom, please ask why. If a student has an allergy concern, of course, there is no question that the animal should not be a part of the classroom. But if there are no such concerns, animals can be a dynamic part of a classroom, and enrich our children’s learning experience as well as their lives.