February 01, 2003


 Critters in the classroom - February 1, 2003

Veterinary technicians and veterinarians offered training to reach K-12 teachers

Posted Jan. 15, 2003  

In many cases, animals in schools are not provided with appropriate habitats.

Several years ago, Dr. John Pitts, an aquatic animal veterinarian in Quilcene, Wash., reached out to students at the K-12 Quilcene School and worked with them to create a shellfish farm. The project taught students about the dynamics of the nearby bay, which had been hard-hit by overfishing. Dr. Pitts was thrilled with the students' response to the program, which ended up receiving President Clinton's 1997 Environmental Protection Agency Northwest Award for Environmental Education.

"What really enlivened the students was the ability to interact with nature and animals," said Dr. Pitts, who realized he wanted to become more involved with schools.

He visited other local schools and found that many classroom animals were not being provided with proper habitats or care. In other instances, teachers had animals that were just not appropriate, such as iguanas, which can be too dangerous for a classroom setting.

According to Lynette Hart, PhD, a University of California-Davis associate professor of veterinary population health and reproduction, national, state, and local government agencies in the United States do not regulate animal use in precollege instruction (see JAVMA, Oct. 15, 2002).

Because government agencies do not provide guidance in this area, however, some veterinarians and organizations have risen to the occasion. A letter in the Dec. 1, 2002, JAVMA described one such instance: the New Jersey Association for Biomedical Research initiated an innovative classroom program offering training, resources, and support to New Jersey teachers who maintain live animals in their classrooms.

Dr. Pitts, in his role as program coordinator for Pet Care Trust, a nonprofit charitable public foundation, has also developed a program for training teachers across the United States. He will soon reach out to veterinary technicians and will be training them so they can work with teachers as well.

The program, Animals in the Classroom, is funded by the pet industry and provides an instructive manual and a one-day workshop for K-12 educators. It's designed to help teachers select and manage appropriate classroom animals to teach science, math, animal behavior, and geography, while creating a climate of cooperation, care, and compassion for the critters.

The program, which costs teachers $25, provides information on how to design a setting that minimizes student health risks and provides adequately for animal needs. It also suggests lesson plans based on the National Science Education Standards.

Dr. Pitts contacts various school districts across the country and, when he has at least 25 teachers enrolled, he travels to different states to deliver his workshop. He has trained more than 1,300 teachers in the past four years. "I cannot keep up with the demand," he said.

To help meet the demand, this spring, Dr. Pitts will start training veterinary technicians and interested veterinarians how to work with schools in their states. "I've talked to a number of veterinary technicians at veterinary conferences and they are interested," Dr. Pitts said.

The first program for training veterinary technicians will be held in Cincinnati, Ohio on April 27. Attendees will learn about teachers' needs and how to organize training meetings for educators. The program will also provide detailed information about husbandry, nutrition, and management of various classroom animals. Technicians and veterinarians who are interested in attending can contact him at jlpitts@olympus.net.

"All over the country, administrators, school boards, and principals are creating policies that eliminate or prevent animals in classrooms, because they think animals cause allergies, or that a domestic rat will cause rabies in children," Dr. Pitts said.

"They are concerned about potential medical problems but don't understand the issues.Teachers do understand the value of animals and are really hungry for more information."

Dr. Pitts hopes that education will help resolve misunderstandings and enhance the human-animal bond.