Sunday, August 28, 2011

Do Animals Belong in our Classrooms?

When I was growing up in suburban New Jersey, keeping pets was considered "normal." We had two dogs, a cat, and, during my pre-teen years, a large number of gerbils and teddy bear hamsters. My older brothers had enjoyed the shorter term companionship of many ducks, chickens and rabbits, as well as a couple of parakeets, which somehow, by the time there were three children, were no longer part of the household census. We also rescued our share of baby squirrels and other creatures left motherless and in need. We had a goldfish pond and a fish tank filled with guppies and we contributed to conservation funds to preserve habitats. Consequently, I grew up knowing that I could and should take responsibility for the creatures and ecosystems around me and feeling particularly connected to my dog, Thistle.

As a mother, I tried to pass along those teachings through similar experiences: dogs, cats, mice, gerbils and hermit crabs have kept us company, demanded our help and care, taught us daily and weekly routines and responsibilities outside our own selves, and helped us keep our eyes and fingers on the love that guides our daily decisions. When a bat wandered uninvited into my bedroom, my daughters courageously and helpfully showed it to the window, returning it to the sky diving and hunting that must have been more interesting than the back of my bookshelf. When the cat brings in living prey, the girls leap to take of it; insects are trapped and escorted out of doors, dead animals are mourned and missed as the friends or strangers they were. Both girls are vegetarians and consequently, most of the food in our household is vegetarian, mostly in response to the inhumane and terrible conditions which are the reality of the lives of most animals raised by for food and sold in supermarkets.

As a teacher in elementary schools, I have to think hard about whether or not to include a classroom pet in our room. There are many positive lessons to be taught by living closely with, caring for, and observing other species. Yet, there are moral/ethical/philosophical dilemmas to consider when keeping animals in captivity or as domesticated creatures. If we are to keep animals in our classroom, we should certainly examine what we are teaching.

On the one hand, when we present our children with animals outside of their natural environment, we are presenting an altered animal, and one which had no say about the change. We are saying, however quietly, that having the ability to pluck them up from their burrows or dens or nests or hidey-holes under the rocks makes it acceptable that we exercise it. These caged animals typically do not meet any other of their kind for the rest of their lives; their desert environments are reproduced using theatrical approximations; the range of weather is nil; the hunt for food, which would usually use up most of an animal's day and calories, is non-existent. The quality and activities of the caged animal's life is very different from one which lives in nature.

On the other hand, "mankind" has been having this type of effect on the world for all of our time in it. We can chop or grow trees, plow and plant land, catch wild horses or cattle or fowl or dogs and raise them. More than any other animal, we not only can do these things, but we can think and talk about them, write books or movies or hold meetings and make laws about doing them. We have both the ability and the responsibility to do everything we do thoughtfully and deliberately, acknowledging that there is not one single act that we can carry out which doesn't have a whole range of consequences and repercussions.

We want to go see our cousins in Boston; we have to either take a few months off from school and walk there and back or we have to take our car and burn hydrocarbons and come back in time for school on Monday. We want to get new furniture because the old furniture didn't quite make the statement or serve the purpose that the new can do, but we don't have time to grow the trees and chop them down and carve them and grow the cotton and pick it and spin it and weave it, so we go to the store, which sits on land which 100 years ago held magnificent maple and oak trees but now is next to hundreds of other stores on a highway covered in asphalt, etc. etc. You get the picture. All of our actions have consequences. Nothing we do, and nothing we have done since the dawn of time, could really be called pure and simple. That's our curse and our blessing.

Back to pets in the classroom. We have classrooms filled with children who come for 6 or 7 hours a day to learn in an environment that presents literally zillions of opportunities to explore and wonder and grow. None of those opportunities is without its costs. We use paper and pencils - thoughtfully and resourcefully, but sometimes extra copies of papers are made by mistake. We turn on lights and computers and heat and air-conditioning - conscious of saving energy, but using it, nonetheless, and sometimes, the heat is too high or the air-conditioning is too low and we have just been a party to adding huge amounts of carbon to the atmosphere without meaning to. We buy new computers or furniture or buildings, mow the lawn, do the laundry, wash the dishes - - and always, there's the environmental cost. We serve snack and lunch and try introduce children to new tastes and textures; sometimes, in order to follow sanitary guidelines and give children the opportunity to try new things, some food gets wasted.

We try to teach lessons about taking care of our planet earth in all that we do, and we all aspire to do an even better job with this - but we live in a real world where budgets and time constraints and each person's individual preferences have a lot to say about the final decisions made about each and every use of resources in the school.

In the end, as with all decisions, we have to decide if the benefits outweigh the drawbacks. The cons of bringing a pet into the classroom are real: some children may have an allergy, some children may see animals in an unnatural surrounding and may not respect the importance of animals living in their own habitat or may think that animals in captivity is the best place for them to be, the animals may not be well cared for, the animals may be dangerous to the children.

The pros are also real: classroom animals give children the chance to live with an animal which many children do not have at home, children learn about and attend to the needs of a being outside their species, children observe the habits and behaviors of an animal which may be very different from the anthropomorphized beings they meet in stories and on tv, children take part in the life cycle of an animal, which is generally much shorter than the human life cycle, so there can be an increased familiarity with birth, death, maturity, etc. and children's emotional well-being may be positively influenced by spending time with an animal.

“Being around animals is extremely good for children”, says Dr. Harvey Markovitch, pediatrician and editor of The Archives of Disease in Childhood. “They’re good for morale, and teach children about relationships and about the needs of another living being – learning to care for a pet helps them to learn how to care for people.”

In classrooms, many children choose to spend time playing with the classroom pet at every free period. Choosing an animal, naming the animal, taking care of the animal, learning about the likes and dislikes of each animal, taking the animal home over school breaks are all important parts of the cooperative work we consider essential to our community.

I think we have to recognize and discuss with our students the possible negative lessons of having animals in cages in our classrooms, and we have to be super-vigilant about caring for the animals' needs in that setting, but the long-term and bigger picture benefits of having animals in our classrooms far exceed the possible negative lessons of caged animals. The companionship of animals has been central to every culture for thousands of years. I'm sure Thistle wouldn't have it any other way.