The curious case of the vanishing pets

2nd October 2015 at 01:00
They teach children about kindness, empathy and the birds and bees, as well as inspiring art, poetry and science. So why are they all but extinct? Lisa Jarmin investigates the mysterious disappearance of the classroom creature

I was five years old when I got my first taste of sex education. It came via our class pet: a ginger, female guinea pig who bore more than a passing resemblance to Janet Street-Porter.

One afternoon, our teacher put a male guinea pig in Amber’s home – a tin bath – and told us that, with a bit of luck, our much-loved pet might have babies in a couple of months. She didn’t explain how this would come about. But I vividly recall the sound of frenzied squeaking and scuffling from the bath as Class 4’s randy new guinea pig had his wicked way for the duration of our spelling test.

Two months of weighing and measuring Amber to monitor her progress followed, until she eventually gave birth to three babies. We watched her taking care of her offspring and saw them change and grow. We were fascinated.

There were other benefits to having a class pet, of course, even before Amber procreated. We learned how to take care of an animal and how to handle her. We took it in turns to take her home during the school holidays. And the sound of a happily chattering guinea pig in the classroom was calming and comforting. It was the first time that many of us had experienced having a pet; the learning opportunities and therapeutic benefits were enormous.

It was such a positive experience that I was determined to recreate it when I became a teacher. But when I asked the headteacher if I could have a class pet, he firmly told me where to go, muttering darkly about “legislation”, “never get anyone to look after it” and “running into the ventilation shaft, never to be seen again”.

I was puzzled. He was usually so tolerant of my classroom shenanigans, many of which had surely given him a bigger headache than an innocent little hamster ever could. And besides, didn’t most schools have class pets?

It turned out that, for the most part, they didn’t. And they still don’t. The class pet – a fixture of many classrooms in the 1980s – has gone missing.

Tormented tortoises

You might welcome the news that there are no more chicks gently steaming under a slightly-too-close lamp, no rabbits rummaging through sparse straw for something – anything – to eat and few, if any, tortoises trying to outrun (ha!) young children wanting to knock on their shells.

But if you believe that such terrible cruelty was once common, you are most likely misinformed. Although the perception is that the classroom pet was often neglected or mistreated, in my experience these pets were adored. We treated them like royalty, we protected them at all costs and even the smallest example of mistreatment would render the culprit a social outcast for at least a week (a life sentence in the rough world of primary playground politics).

Such was our commitment to these small creatures that they proved incredibly useful for teachers, too. As well as the numerous benefits of simply having a pet in the classroom, whatever the subject matter a teacher wanted to teach, a simple, tenuous reference to the slightly pungent pen in the corner was enough to get us hooked and learning. Why, then, the modern reluctance to bring animals into the classroom when there are such apparent benefits for pupils?

The answer appears to lie in the RSPCA’s Education and Animals, a document that offers comprehensive advice on keeping pets in a school environment. It makes for horrifying and very grown-up reading.

The document states several times that “the RSPCA strongly discourages the keeping of animals in schools”. It goes on to say that, “as a result of the new Animal Welfare Act 2006, management and staff at educational establishments now have a ‘legal duty of care’ to ensure that proper provision is made for the welfare needs of any vertebrate animal for which they are responsible. This applies not only during term time but also during the holidays.”

It’s worth noting here that you are “responsible” if you are the class teacher, the headteacher, the teaching assistant, the parent of a pupil under the age of 16, or even a supply teacher in the classroom in which an animal lives. Whether you are also responsible if you are breathing and within a 30-mile radius of a school with a pet it does not say, but I wouldn’t risk it.

With fines of up to £20,000, a ban on owning animals or a spell in prison if you are deemed to be cruel to an animal or failing to meet its welfare needs, it’s a pretty hefty responsibility. And it’s one that must not be taken lightly, even if performance-related pay has bumped you up to megabucks (as if) and your dad is the local magistrate.

Critter care

The RSPCA document goes on to list the welfare needs of animals that need to be taken into account (there are many), and then you have to consider whether the hustle and bustle of a typical classroom is a suitable environment for an animal. The level of sound emitted by 30 seven-year-olds often leaves me in need of a little lie down at the end of the day, so imagine how distressing it could be for a tiny creature.

To put it bluntly, we might not have abused our class pets in the past, but we were certainly not going to win any pet-owner-of-the-year contests. A plastic storage tub lined with sawdust and a carrot as a treat every Friday just won’t cut it any more – and neither should they in these more enlightened times. So unless you and the staff and parents at your school can commit to fulfilling the needs of an animal, you should rethink your decision to house one in a classroom.

If that came across as a little preachy, I can only apologise: I’m dealing with some dreadful guilt over Amber’s late-1980s incarceration in my old classroom.

Now that I’ve composed myself, I can bring good news: it may be – and should be – intolerably hard to have a pet in the classroom, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have one.

“One morning, we found a pair of pet rats dumped in the school alleyway,” recalls primary teacher Sarah McDonald. “I convinced the head to let me keep them in my classroom and she agreed, as long as we got advice from a vet. The class adored them. The pupils brought them treats, took it in turns to clean out their cage, made posters about caring for them and let them snuggle in their pockets.

“They never mishandled them and loved showing off their animal-welfare knowledge.”

A heart-warming tale, then, but one that comes with a caveat: although there is a place for animals in the classroom in some circumstances, McDonald wouldn’t always recommend it.

“I work at a different school now and some of my pupils have severe emotional and behavioural issues,” she says. “It would absolutely not be appropriate for me to bring an animal into the classroom in my current environment, as the children are too unpredictable.”

The modern menagerie

This is an important issue to consider: no matter how committed staff are to looking after an animal properly, is every student’s behaviour going to be appropriate around an animal? Do you have a member of the class who can be unpredictable or violent? The chances are that such a child would adjust their behaviour around a much-loved class pet and learn to be gentle and quiet, but you can’t be sure.

Are any of the children in your class scared of animals? If so, sharing a classroom with a creature could be a stressful experience for them. And what about allergies? Any animal that sheds fur or requires hay for bedding could trigger asthma attacks or allergy symptoms in vulnerable children.

In addition to the welfare of the animal and the pupils, you also need to consider the practicalities. Primary teacher Jen Cooper loves her two class rabbits, but they do present challenges.

“The children adore them,” she says, “but nobody ever volunteers to look after them during the school holidays, no matter how many begging letters I send out. I’m tied to going back and forth to school to feed them at the weekends, and I’m forever lugging their cage home for the holidays. It’s an added responsibility that I wasn’t prepared for.”

Some schools, though, would laugh at the thought of two little rabbits being troublesome. These are the “can-do” schools for which the extensive RSPCA guidance document brings not fear but opportunity. These are schools with job descriptions no other school would believe existed in education. These are schools with farms.

A prime example is the winner of this year’s TES Primary School of the Year Award, West Rise Junior School in East Sussex. When I read about it in these pages, it sounded like something out of a book – a really fun book about animals.

Headteacher Mike Fairclough, his staff and pupils look after chickens, ducks, goats, sheep and water buffalo – yes, water buffalo – on a marsh neighbouring the school. They also keep about a million bees in a set of hives.

Buffalo stance

“The best way to promote animal welfare among children is to give them the opportunity to look after the animals and to see first-hand how much work goes into it,” Fairclough says. “We have a team of children who are our ‘farm managers’. They clean out the animals, feed them and make decisions about where they should go, under the direction of an adult farm manager. Our animals are in public view at all times, so everyone can see they are kept clean and in good condition.”

He tells me that the farm has provided a rich curriculum for the pupils, inspiring poetry and art, and adding context to the school’s Bronze Age settlement site. But have there been any problems?

“Well, there was the time when all the buffalo escaped and ended up on Eastbourne seafront,” Fairclough recalls. Thankfully, the animals were very well behaved and only lightly nibbled someone’s privet hedge, so it could have been worse.

After talking to Fairclough, I feel inspired. I would very much like to herd some water buffalo around a marsh in Eastbourne, in any form of Bronze Age costume Fairclough can lend me. I go back to my school full of ideas about becoming a medium-sized farming operation with rare breeds roaming the grass verges of the suburbs around the school.

But how long would my enthusiasm last? I know myself too well to think that I should be put in charge of a marsh full of animals. I simply don’t have time to look after a herd. I don’t have time to look after even one animal. If I’m honest, I barely have time to look after myself.

That is perhaps the rub of the issue: no one is disputing that having an animal in the classroom is beneficial. Nor are they suggesting that teachers are awful people who hate animals. The question is whether we teachers have time to care for a classroom pet as well as we should. Some incredibly committed individuals, such as Fairclough, make that time. But they tend to be exceptions.

For the rest of us, workload has killed any prospect of caring for a small class animal. That’s sad. But the last thing we need to be thinking about after 12 hours at school, a rushed dinner over some marking and an evening of planning is cleaning out little Fluffy’s cage at 1 in the morning, only for little Fluffy to wee on the carpet.

No, thanks. I’ll just take my pupils to Fairclough’s place.

Lisa Jarmin is a primary teacher in the North West of England

Vet Marc Abraham’s view: ‘Classroom pets make great teachers’

From guinea pigs to goldfish, hamsters to rats, classroom pets make great teachers. They can help children of all ages and backgrounds to learn valuable life lessons, including compassion, loyalty, friendship (“someone” to tell secrets to), empathy, responsibility and even bereavement.

Class pets must be cared for properly and pupils need to realise that animals have different personalities, characteristics and needs that must be respected.

Looking after class pets means offering appropriate food, clean water, bedding, a secure enclosure, toys and other items to provide the animals with physical and mental stimulation.

Children must be taught to recognise signs of pain and distress, as well as acceptable ways of stroking, picking up, holding, general handling and letting go when the animal has had enough – without pulling, kicking, restraining or chasing them.

Respecting the animal’s need for peace and quiet is equally important, as is not leaving certain pets unsupervised for long periods of time, such as at night, weekends and school holidays.

Marc Abraham (pictured) is a vet who appears on television, radio and social media promoting animal welfare. He regularly visits schools to teach pupils how to care for pets.

Animal magnetism

The RSPCA suggests some alternatives to having a class pet. These include developing a wildlife area on school grounds so that animals and minibeasts can be observed in their natural habitat.

Alternatively, simply expose pupils to books and DVDs about animals. The charity also recommends visiting farms in the Access to Farms database.

For a list of suitable farms, see

A beginner’s guide to caring for water buffalo

Water buffalo consume grass and other vegetation relentlessly, and don’t stop unless they are asleep, wallowing in water or running around. They require large expanses of grassland and will eat vast amounts of reeds, thistles and other vegetation within their habitat.

A good-sized lake is essential for them to swim in during the warmer months, when they will want to cool down and roll in the mud.

Water buffalo stand up to 1.9m at the shoulder and males can have horns with a span of 1.5m, so it is important to take care around them and to treat them with respect.

A boundary fence is strongly advised, otherwise they will roam for miles. Water buffalo will walk straight through conventional stock fences and other man-made barriers as if they were made of thin air, so make sure that your fence is very strong.

An annual tuberculosis test, carried out by a vet, is required by law.

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