No longer any teacher's pets

25th July 1997 at 01:00
Animals in Education, Animals in Schools, Free resource packs from RSPCA Education, Causeway, Horsham West Sussex RH12 1HG

During the 1970s, when I was at school, pets were an integral part of the classroom. The main reason for their presence (they were almost invariably gerbils) was for our benefit. They taught us about life and death, and through looking after them, responsibility. However, a number of animal welfare organisations now question the use of animals in this context. In the past 15 years there has been a major change in attitudes towards animals; from the benefits they can offer us, to our obligations to look after their welfare. I strongly applaud this change.

In these two booklets, the RSPCA advocates that schools should not keep animals, even insects (or mini-beasts as they call them), in the classroom. Instead they promote the idea of studying animals in their natural habitat and give sensible guidelines for doing so.

While this approach may work well for rural schools, I feel that it would not be practical for urban schools. Furthermore, observing animals in their natural habitat can be difficult and requires hours of patience, making it an impractical solution for teachers.

I like the suggestion to visit zoos, wildlife parks and farms. However, although the booklets emphasise the need to view captive animals from the perspective of animal welfare, they give rather simplistic arguments. For example, the booklets encourage pupils to consider the amount of space a captive animal requires, whereas, what is important to an animal is the qual-ity not the quantity of that space.

The Animals in Education booklet makes the excellent suggestion of an animal welfare audit in which pupils would be encouraged to examine how school activities could affect animal welfare. This includes the impact of energy consumption, which makes the link between animals and destruction of their natural environments, as well as purchasing products - which brings in the ethical and moral questions surrounding the testing of all consumer products, not just medicines and cosmetics.

However, these subjects are complex and may be difficult to teach pupils younger than 12 - especially as many of the subjects are probably not fully understood by non-expert teachers.

To some extent, both booklets gloss over the complexities of the animal welfare debate and lack of information for teachers. They attempt to counter this by suggesting bringing experts into the classroom, and using teaching aids such as CD-Roms and videos.

However, neither booklet gives a list of addresses of organisations, other than the RSPCA, who could provide such expertise, or sources of additional teaching aids. Yet many organisations will provide such expertise. Furthermore, the Internet is not mentioned, although it is full of useful information on animal-related subjects.

Given the difficulty in creating welfare friendly environments, I would agree that making classroom pets a "rare" species is a good thing. But for them to be removed totally is to deprive teachers of a powerful teaching aid that would allow them to breathe life into their classrooms.

Dr Rob Young is the research co-ordinator for the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland

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