Class Pets

Who could resist that face?

I recently enjoyed reading writer Janet Gogerty’s entertaining post entitled Llamas and Labradoodles on Sally Cronin’s Smorgasbord Blog Magazine.

Janet’s thoughts got me thinking about my own experiences with animals when I was an elementary teacher in California.  Many years my students had the joy of caring for animals in our classroom.  (I taught thirty-one years in grades 2-6.)

I was rummaging around in the garage the other day (anything to distract me from my current project of painting the interior of the house) and came across the twin-level cage that was the home for many of the rats we raised.  It is now rusty and showing wear, but at the time I felt like our rats had it pretty good—as good as rats can have it.

My classroom rat cage.

Not only was it fun to have a class pet, but the kids learned about the responsibility of caring for animals.  Each week I assigned one of my students to be in charge of providing our rats with food, water, and a clean cage.  There were many classroom jobs, but this was one of the most popular tasks.

Having pets in a classroom involves some degree of risk.  A teacher needs to consider the possibility of the animals getting loose, what to do with the animals on weekends and vacations, and the reality that someday one of the kids’ furry friends may pass.  Since rats don’t live a particularly long life (2-3 years), it was inevitable that one or more of our animals would die while we were caring for it.

I typically got two rats (preferably of the same gender for obvious reasons).  The first time our pair passed away was during the middle of summer at my house, so the students weren’t even aware.

The following school year I got my second pair of rats.  I let the students name them.  Hence, Snowball (all white) and Oreo (black and white) came to reside in my classroom for the better part of the next three years.

There were many adventures along the way for the animals and us.  One morning I came in early to ready myself for the day and found the cage wide open.  Unfortunately, one of my students hadn’t locked the door properly.  Instead of preparing lessons, I spent the next half hour trying to round up the runaways.

I found Snowball under the book cabinet, and I was able to recapture him without too much difficulty.  Oreo, on the other hand, had tasted freedom, and he was not going to be apprehended quickly.  I chased him from location to location, closing in on him only to see the little bugger dash to a new hiding spot.  Time was running out as the students would appear at any minute. 

The first bell rang, and I realized that I had quite the situation on my hand.  (Just another day in the life of a teacher.) I met my students outside the classroom door and explained the story to twenty eager second graders who were thrilled about the prospect of playing sheriff and trying to round up the escaped felon. 

Realizing we could not spend an entire day trying to snare a loose animal, I told the kids that they only had five minutes to catch Oreo before we would have to start the business of school.  During the next few minutes, twenty very excited second graders and their beleaguered teacher attempted to apprehend the scoundrel, but Oreo remained on the loose. 

The kids were enjoying themselves, but I realized there was no guarantee that we would catch our furry friend quickly.  I called a halt to the search party to the disgust of my posse.  I pictured trying to explain to my principal why everyone was on their hands and knees crawling around the classroom instead of participating in my exciting math lesson.

As you can imagine, this was futile as the kids’ sole interest was on a black and white bundle of energy rather than paying attention to me talk about fractions. Can you blame them?  Thank goodness I finally captured my little friend on top of a set of encyclopedias during recess.

Part of the job of having animals in the classroom was teaching my expectations to the students.  Before school, I would bring out the cage and set it in the middle of the room where the kids could observe them.  The animals often put on quite the show knowing they had a captivated audience.  They wrestled, ran around the cage playing, and even jumped into the exercise wheel while running in synchronicity.  The kids laughed and enjoyed the performers.

When the second bell rang, indicating the start of school, I brought the cage to the back of the room out of sight.  Rats are nocturnal, so after their morning exercise, they slept for most of the day.  We occasionally would hear them eating and drinking.  On the rare day when we finished all of our work early, I would get the rats out of their cage for the last five minutes of the day.  The children who were interested took turns holding them.

Finally, I faced that dreaded day I knew would happen.  One of my students was near the cage in the back of the room and exclaimed at the top of his lungs, “Snowball is dead!”  Immediately, a swarm of classmates scurried around the cage to verify the diagnosis.

My instinct was to protect my students from this scene, and I went into immediate cover-up mode. “Maybe he’s just sick,” I said.  “I’ll take him to the vet after school to see if there is anything the doctor can do to help him.”

I doubt that they bought it, but it gave me time to think about what to do next.  I threw a sheet over the cage and tried to get back to business.  Perhaps that seems insensitive, but I was trying my best not to have the kids dwell on the scene of a dead animal.

After school, I confirmed that Snowball had indeed passed.  What do I do now?  I called the school counselor seeking some advice on how best to handle the circumstances.  She let me borrow the perfect book regarding the death of a pet and suggested I try reading that to my class the next day. 

As soon as my students arrived the following day, they wanted to know about Snowball.  I told them that our pet had indeed passed and several kids started getting weepy.  I talked to them about my favorite memories of Snowball (there were a couple of funny stories to tell), and then I read the book to them. 

I knew it was important for them to have some closure, but this was delicate ground.  From past experiences, I’ve had students ask me if they could tell the class about a pet passing, but this gets very tricky.  All it takes is for one child to start crying, and you will end up with a classroom of upset children.

In this case, I went with my instincts (there is no teacher handbook for situations such as this) and asked the kids if they’d like to make cards.  Many were keen on this idea.  I put on some quiet music, and they had time to draw pictures and write messages.

One of the students suggested bringing the cage out and presenting their cards to Oreo.  Many other children in the class showed interest in this idea also.  As a teacher, I was often forced to rely on my best judgment when cases such as this happened. 

I decided this was the best thing for them, and we went ahead and held a rat memorial.  The kids shared their cards with the rest of the class and put their memories around the cage.  Thank goodness I had made the right decision.  Many of the children needed some way to express their sorrow, and this provided them that opportunity.

Quite unexpectedly, two of my students made cards for me.  Talk about irony.  I was worried about my students’ mental health and giving them a chance to grieve to some degree.  What I had not considered was that some of my students were equally concerned about me.         

40 thoughts on “Class Pets

  1. You solution was very sensitive and inspired, Pete. I enjoyed this post. It reminded me of the series of books about Humphrey the hamster.


    1. petespringerauthor July 11, 2019 — 9:52 pm

      Thank you, Roberta. Pretty funny how many of my students wanted nothing to do with rats at the start of the year, but then they became quite fond of them.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. You know, Pete, I think children are so far removed from animals nowadays, they are scared of them. When they get use to them, the enthusiasm comes forward. I remember reading somewhere that a lot of British kids don’t know milk comes from a cow.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Reblogged this on Smorgasbord Blog Magazine and commented:
    An entertaining and useful post from Pete Springer about the joys of having class pets (the fur kind). Rats are not long lived, and along with the fun and joy, comes the inevitable passing after a short number of years.. how to deal with this situation.. head over to Pete’s to find the solution. #recommended

    Liked by 2 people

    1. petespringerauthor July 12, 2019 — 6:46 am

      Thank you, Sally, for the reblog. I have great respect for your blog, the regular, great content you find, and many of your fellow bloggers. It is a wonderful community, and I’m glad to be part of it.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Thank you Pete and lovely to have you part of it. x

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Fabulous post Pete, helpful and entertaining. And two perfect lead characters in a series of children’s books… Snowball and Oreo Go Exploring…etc.. great stuff.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. petespringerauthor July 12, 2019 — 6:52 am

      Great idea—one I had not considered. My early attempts have been to write for the age I’m most familiar with—middle grades. Thank you for the wonderful suggestion, Sally.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Pleasure Pete and I do have a great illustrator who did mine for Tales from the Irish Garden…

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Thanks Pete, glad my blog inspired memories. This seems to be the week of the rat. My friend who lives hundreds of miles away (thus we could not help with her latest disaster ) has a gorgeous young spoodle, or whatever her poodly mixed dog is. The friend also cares for her elderly mother who suffers from severe anxiety. Spoodle found a rats’ nest in the garden, but it inspired maternal intinct rather than hunter and she was found with a naked, blind mewling baby rat on the staircase indoors, licking it fondly! Late last night our security light came on and I saw a fox on the back lawn playing with something furry looking. This morning there was a dead rat on the lawn – don’t tell the neighbours! Obviously our local foxes find better stuff to eat than rats.
    We once had a gerbilarium and one of the pair of white gerbils managed to die ( natural causes ) during my daughter’s birthday party!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. petespringerauthor July 12, 2019 — 7:04 am

      Oh, my goodness! I can imagine the drama of a child losing a pet during the middle of a birthday party. I wasn’t there, and yet, I immediately felt awful for her.

      One of the most delightful things about the care home that my mom resided in for the last few years of her life was that the facility allowed animals. Many of the residents lived with their cat or dog. It was such a beautiful feeling to see the elderly, many who were in the early stages of dementia, still connecting with their pets.

      I also love the story about Spoodle and her motherly instinct. Thanks for sharing, Janet.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. My sister takes her 100% poodle to visit Mum in her care home.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Reblogged this on Times and Tides of a Beachwriter and commented:
    Did you have a class pet? Pete Springer was inspired by my archive blog shared by Sally Cronin on Monday to write about his teaching years. There is a picture of the most adorable rat who English readers will recognise as Roland Rat!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. petespringerauthor July 12, 2019 — 7:07 am

      Thank you for the reblog, Janet. Thanks again for your original Llamas and Labradoodles post. It made this old memory resurface.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. What a sweet story. We gave our three ferrets, when my son left home, to the biology teacher at my daughter’s school. She loved ferrets and they had an entire system of tunnels running around the room. One of the tunnels passed right by a huge cage with a six foot snake!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. petespringerauthor July 12, 2019 — 7:39 am

      Nice to read your comment, Noelle. My dad was a wildlife biologist and one of the projects he worked on was the restoration of the endangered black footed ferret when we lived in South Dakota. I think you might be interested in the background of the ferret, so I’m sending you this link.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thanks, Pete. I will take a look. When my son was a kid, we had five cats, three dogs, three ferrets, an iguana, seven snakes and a basilisk lizard. He was constantly trying to find some animal that gave me the ick factor but he never did. I love animals, all sorts!

        Liked by 2 people

  7. Class pets…Our house was the house looking after the class pets during the school holidays etc…Luckily no demises on my watch …A lovely story of how kids benefit in many ways from having a class pet 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    1. petespringerauthor July 12, 2019 — 8:34 am

      One of my favorite stories in this regard is from one of my students’ parents who blamed me (half-jokingly) that I was the person responsible for her new found love of rats. Ha-ha! I was over visiting after her daughter had watched the rats over vacation, and she had a rat of her own. Thanks for being that person, Carol. Teachers love helpful parents.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. One of my least favourite stories was when the hampster who kept my daughter awake was relegated to the bathroom minus the offending wheel so he chewed a lovely hole in the bathroom carpet as when the wheel was removed it left a nice round hole which was directly on the carpet…mmm..

        Liked by 2 people

  8. As the presider over many pet funerals, especially for fish(which die with appalling regularity) my congratulations for taking the loss seriously. My only pet in the classroom story came when one gerbil ate the other. Fortunately I discovered it before the kids returned in the morning.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. petespringerauthor July 12, 2019 — 1:23 pm

      Yipes! That gerbil story would have been quite the lesson. (survival of the fittest and cannibalism all rolled into one) Glad you didn’t have to navigate those turbulent waters. I’ve had fish before too with similar results. I don’t know if it’s because they don’t live very long or because the kids can’t hold them, but my class was never too upset when the fish died.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. It was completely unexpected and gross.

        Liked by 1 person

  9. You did well with your pet rats in the classroom and handled the death of Snowball very sensitively. My daughter had pet rats and mice at home, but I never had them as pets at school, though a few ‘wild’ mice were known to visit occasionally, especially in the cooler months. The animals I kept were caterpillars that we got from recently hatched and observed all the way through pupation to butterfly. It was a wonderful experience without the trauma of escapees. We did ‘lose’ a few caterpillars and butterflies in the process (i.e. they died) but the children came to understand it as a part of life – not quite as traumatic as losing a larger pet you can hold and care for though, but a beginning. I agree with Sally that these two would be great characters for a picture book, or two. 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

    1. petespringerauthor July 13, 2019 — 7:37 am

      So many good memories about raising animals. I think it was one of the most effective ways I’ve found to teach children about responsibility. I also did the caterpillars to butterflies life cycle two years. Quite a magical moment for the kids when they got to release their butterflies to begin anew. A number of my colleagues raised chicks and also salmon. Always fun to compare notes as fellow teachers, Norah. Thank you.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. They used to do the chicks at prep. I taught year one so needed something different. There were regulations against frogs, turtles and lizards so I had to find something else. I had some disasters with fish, hermit crabs and billabong bugs, but always success with the butterflies, and we always loved them. 🙂

        Liked by 2 people

  10. I don’t ever recall having a teacher who had a class pet. Shame really ’cause that would have introduced a whole new likeness for school. Well done, for having a class pet to share! 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    1. petespringerauthor July 15, 2019 — 6:00 pm

      That’s unfortunate, Kevin. I taught some hard kids with severe anger issues, and animals were often the ticket to help reach these students.

      Liked by 2 people

  11. July 16, 2019 — 6:49 pm

    Cute story Pete. I had mice for pets one year. A few students were bitten by them when they escaped, and I gave those students a Purple Heart for being wounded in the line of learning. The principal didn’t think it was funny and told me to get rid of them as they were a liability! That was the beginning and end of my classroom pets! Kent

    Liked by 2 people

    1. petespringerauthor July 16, 2019 — 8:45 pm

      Liability!!! Administrators put that one in with the category “words never to be uttered at school.” I like your sense of humor, Kent. I wish I could have gotten one of those purple hearts when I occasionally got bit or had a rat poop in my hand. Saw your article in the paper. Congrats, Kent. I have to tell you a good one that you will appreciate—I got a kick out of it. A friend told me he already saw a copy of my book for sale in a thrift store. What does the most interesting man in the world say in those commercials? “Stay thirsty, my friends.” My new motto is, “Stay humble, my friends.”

      Liked by 1 person

  12. You handled it so beautifully, Pete. I used to be a children’s grief counselor. Honesty about death and giving the children physical activities to engage in the process of grief (memories, cards, and a rat memorial service) is perfect. It allows for individual and community participation. Well done.


    1. petespringerauthor July 20, 2019 — 11:04 am

      Thank you, Diana. I cared about my students’ emotional well-being as much as their academic growth. It’s particularly tricky knowing that some of the students had never experienced death before.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Most adults radiate a lot of trepidation and would rather “make it go away.” And kids are so perceptive that they pick up on it. I love how you handled it.

        Liked by 1 person

  13. Great post, Pete. You did the right thing. Children need to talk and grieve, not keep it bottled up inside. I love how you had children make cards and write messages. May I ask what book you read to them?

    I have guinea pigs in my class. Children take the pet home on weekends, and there’s a journal for sharing their adventure. I think I’m on my fifth guinea pig. Death is never easy. Discussions on if they go to heaven are common. We have a Memory Garden on the playground, and we have a ceremony and bury the pet. Children decide what to say and to sing. It’s wonderful. Also, we plant American flags in the Memory Garden on Memorial Day and 9/11.

    Our current guinea pig, Ella the Fella, will be six years old this year. I may have another death and dying episode this year. Best to you, Pete. Loved your post!

    Liked by 3 people

    1. petespringerauthor July 20, 2019 — 1:13 pm

      A Memory Garden is a brilliant idea! Kudos to whoever came up with that. I also love the concept of sending the animals home on the weekend. I came to school on most Saturdays anyway, so I cared for them then. On longer breaks, I sent the animals home with students—such a great way to teach responsibility. I’m sorry that I did not write down the title of the book; I have to admit that this was approximately ten years ago, and my old memory isn’t what it used to be.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I wish I could take credit for the Memory Garden, but alas I cannot. It does wonders for children. I’ve written about this on my blog. Ella probably goes home with children at most
        once a month. I bet you read “The Tenth Good Thing About Barney” or “Badger’s Parting Gifts.” My memory is old, too! 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  14. Pete, this is a wonderful story in so many ways. Thank you for sharing it here.
    On the other subject, painting the interior of the house has been my project and procrastination the past few months too. I had a terrible allergic reaction (not to the paint, but to things outside) and had to put it on hold. It took forever for the hives to clear up. By the time I felt safe to open the windows (and paint again) it was too hot to open them. Sigh… I have a long way to go. We’ll both have nice walls eventually. Hugs.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. petespringerauthor July 27, 2019 — 11:07 pm

      Nice to meet you, Teagan, and thanks for your comment. Hives are the worst! I found out I was allergic to amoxicillin when I broke out with hives all over my body. Writing is more fun than painting any day of the week, so I vote for avoiding tedious tasks.

      Liked by 1 person

  15. School pets are the best way to introduce the concept of death to children too young to imagine mortality. They get to deal with it among friends, in a safe environment, and don’t have to grieve alone. And learning to care for something else hopefully teaches a lesson that will make them kinder people when they grow up.
    Best wishes, Pete.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. petespringerauthor August 16, 2019 — 8:06 am

      Well said, Pete. Thank you for your comment.

      Liked by 2 people

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