Pupils will be denied an "awe-inspiring experience" if school pets are banned, many teachers report. They were reacting to calls from the RSPCA which has repeatedly called for animals to be banned from schools because it fears they are not being looked after properly.
Heads and teachers contacted by TES Cymru spoke up in favour of schools keeping pets. Their classroom menageries include everything from newly hatched ducklings to creepy crawlies.
Anyone over the age of 16 responsible for an animal, including teachers, could be prosecuted if the animal comes to any harm.
But Eireen Jones, head of Ysgol Feithrin Rhydaman in Ammanford, said pupils love the pets in her Carmarthenshire nursery. Learning how to look after them is great for children's development, she says.
Her menagerie includes degus (Chilean rodents), guinea pigs, budgies, fish and a rabbit that runs freely around the classroom. Caterpillars have formed cocoons in an incubator, and pupils are eagerly waiting for butterflies to emerge.
Mrs Jones said children are taught about basic hygiene and how to handle each animal carefully.
"Whenever children look after the animals, it is always under adult supervision," she said. "They know we wear rubber gloves to do certain things, and they have to wash their hands after touching the animals."
Every afternoon, a small number of children are chosen to feed the animals and clean out their cages.
"The children can't read yet, but the food is labelled pictorially and they have to match it up with the correct animal. Our rabbit is very old and so the vet visits us regularly. He checks the hearts of the animals with a stethoscope and cuts their nails. The children associate it with going to the doctor - it gives them that first-hand experience."
But Mrs Jones admits it can be hard work. The school used to have a tank of lobsters but decided they were too big a burden on staff.
"Your teachers need to be willing," she said. "We all look after different animals and take them home at weekends. We used to send the animals home with children but we had one or two nasty experiences."
But she believes the chance to see and touch animals is invaluable. "If children are upset, it's a very good way of making them forget," she said. "It's a good ploy with new children - it soothes them and they seem to settle quicker. If an animal dies, we have a little funeral for them. If their grandparent has died, children often say they have gone to heaven - just like their rabbit."
Some schools have hit on other ways of introducing pupils to animals. When Ysgol Rhewl in Denbighshire invited parents to bring in their own pets, it was taken over by ferrets, rabbits, cats, a barn owl and even an Irish wolfhound.
Tania Armstrong-Owen, the head, said: "We are really into first-hand experiences for children. It's not the same as reading about it from a book."
At Rhydyfelin Nursery School in Pontypridd, pupils have been visited by a wide variety of exotic pets, including snakes, spiders and stick insects.
Head Catherine Luxton invited zoo specialists to bring in the animals. She said the school's close relationship with parents has allayed her fears about health and safety.
"They know it is all done in a safe, structured environment, and they see how much children enjoy it," she said. "One parent brought in a chinchilla. Nobody can tell you what it's like to feel its soft fur - you can't read about it, but if you touch it you will always remember it. It's almost magical."
ALTERNATIVES TO PETS
- Soft toys and models;
- Role play and drama;
- Hold a pet day;
- Watch animals in their natural habitats;
- Develop a wildlife area on school grounds;
- Charities such as Pets As Therapy can bring in trained dogs.