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The classroom is a zoo: The value of teaching with animals

I was working with a colleague the other day. She was flustered and frustrated. She turned to me and said, “I apologize, Mr. Dunbar, but this classroom is a zoo!”

I thought to myself, “If only that were true…”

Tales from the Terrarium

“Folwell, I’ve got a problem.” Ms. Bailey, one of the kindergarten teachers, was definitely in a panic. She looked around my room to make sure there were no children and closed the door. “As you know,” she said, “our classroom pets are two mice, Mickey and Mini. Well, apparently, they decided to start a family. Now we’ve got eight! Can you help me out?”

“Of course,” I said. “Just tell the kids you donated them to the zoo.”

Our 8th grade mascots were two speckled king snakes named Salt and Pepper. They LOVED mice.

The next day, I turned down the lights, turned up Richard Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries,” and dropped the six pinkies into the terrarium. The kids shrieked as the snakes inhaled their breakfast. A few minutes later, the happy reptiles were basking on a heated rock and we were discussing FDR’s New Deal.

I figured that was the end of it.

It wasn’t.

Schools, regardless of their size, are small places. And kids, like adults, talk.

The eruption from the kindergarten wing rivaled that of Vesuvius in AD 79. There were deafening howls and buckets of tears. At one point things got so bad the principal actually considered calling in a crisis team.

Almost 20 years later, I ran into one of Ms. (now Mrs.) Bailey’s students. The first thing she said was, “Mr. Dunbar, I still haven’t forgiven you!”

“Yes,” I said. “I know.”

I guess it’s true what they say: “All you really need to know, you probably learned in kindergarten.”

The Feature Creature

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Animals and education (photo provided by: Folwell Dunbar)

Just about every teacher at our school had a classroom pet. There were hedgehogs, geckos, turtles and koi. We even had a few chickens and a pond. There were always plenty of critters stirring about.

Years later, I started working with low-performing schools in under-served neighborhoods. The schools were all under tremendous pressure to make AYP or Adequate Yearly Progress. They were to close the “achievement gap” and leave no child behind!

One of the first things I noticed was a complete dearth of animals. They seemed to have gone extinct like the dodo bird and the passenger pigeon. When I asked teachers, they told me they didn’t have time.

“We have too many mandates and benchmarks,” they complained. “Goldfish and hamsters aren’t on the test,” a second grade teacher “joked.” They also mentioned allergies, liability and costs. “It’s just not worth it,” they said.

The notion of “animals not being worth it” got lodged, like a porcupine quill, deep in my craw. “Traumatized kindergarteners aside,” I thought, “animals belong in the classroom. There has to be a way…”

So, between professional development sessions on more “impactful” topics like data-driven decision-making, the efficient use of instructional time, standards-based grading and strategic curriculum alignment, I slowly started reintroducing “symbiotic” species.

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Animals and education (photo provided by: Folwell Dunbar)

Once a month, I borrowed animals from the Audubon Zoo and brought them to the schools. I called it “Mr. Dunbar’s Feature Creature.” Initially, I used a KWL format: “What do you Know about spiders? What do you Want to know about them? And now, after spending quality time with these amazing arachnids, what have you Learned?”

Later, I expanded my repertoire to include visual thinking prompts (“What do you see, think and wonder?”), open-ended questions (“If you were a spider…”), brainstorming, jigsaw activities and role-playing.

I also started working with teachers to develop standard-aligned lessons and projects that incorporated animals. A couple of my favorites involved turning off the volume to David Attenborough’s Life on Earth series and having the kids narrate (in highbrow British accents, of course) and designing, describing and employing hybrid species, from the Tasmanian turtle and the Himalayan snow octopus to the giraffe-necked manatee and the duckbilled bison.

We also developed 100 essential animal questions every K-12 student should be able to answer before they graduate. While they weren’t on the end-of-year high-stakes test, they were challenging, helped build vocabulary and required critical thinking, i.e., they were important.

The chicken coups de grâce was the construction of ponds and outdoor ecosystems at several schools. There, young budding biologists could conduct their own fieldwork. They collected data, observed life cycles, and monitored environmental conditions like temperature, turbidity and PH.

Our efforts didn’t exactly provoke a stampede toward AYP, but they did get kids fired up about learning.

Where the wild things are

Dr. Jennifer Coulson is an ornithologist, falconer and the President of the New Orleans Audubon Society. When I asked her how she ended up in such an unusual career, she said, “It all began with rolling doodle bugs across the sidewalk, keeping pet crickets, lizards, turtles, and parakeets, and peering into cardinal nests. Every childhood encounter I had with animals brought me one step closer to my hobbies and careers as an adult.”

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Dr. Jennifer Coulson is an ornithologist, falconer and the President of the New Orleans Audubon Society (photo provided by: Folwell Dunbar)

E.O. Wilson, the esteemed Harvard professor and Pulitzer Prize-winning author of more than 30 books, had a similar story. He discovered his passion for bugs while traipsing around the backwoods of Mobile, Alabama.

Erik Erikson, Jean Piaget, B.F. Skinner and Sigmund Freud all identified district phases of child development. The one they left out was the animal phase – where the wild things are.

During this phase, children often find their passion, and sometimes even a career. I have friends who collect and cook bugs for the Audubon Insectarium, raise and train Harris hawks, treat household pets, protect homes from termites, give birding tours, conduct research and, of course, teach biology.

For those who didn’t necessarily find their passion during this phase, there are still plenty of life lessons to be gleaned from creatures great and small. Just as pets have been used successfully in prison rehabilitation programs, as part of therapy for people suffering from anxiety and depression, and to comfort the elderly and infirmed, animals in the classroom have benefits that go well beyond the curriculum and state mandates.

For kids who don’t get the best care at home, caring for an animal at school can help teach compassion, empathy and responsibility. According to Coulson, “Animals are therapeutic. The squirmy kid who blurts out things and doesn’t feel comfortable in his or her own skin is often the best-behaved of the class when the animals come out.”

Animals can be used to build self-esteem, classroom spirit and civic pride. Additionally, research has shown that having pets in the classroom can actually improve attendance and, contrary to popular belief, reduce allergies.

And, as many of us discovered from Sendak’s classic tale, animals, real and fictitious, can bring out our wildest imagination, something that can’t be measured on a standardized test!

Abejas & Ovejas

Abejas or bees were my biggest failure as a Peace Corps volunteer. I kept a couple of hives at my site in Zhamar, Ecuador, and tried in vain to convince the locals to do the same. It was a tough sell. The Africanized or “killer” bees were aggressive, and honey wasn’t exactly a hot commodity in the high Andes.

One day a friend and neighbor of mine appeared at my door. His name was Guillermo. He was 16 and one of the few people in the entire paróquia of Jima who had any interest whatsoever in abejas. He told me there was a swarm down by the river and asked me if I could catch it. “¡Por supuesto!” I said, “Of course! And you can keep the hive.” This was the turning point I had been waiting for…

We put on our gear and headed down to the Rio Moya. The swarm was on the side of a cliff about 40 feet above the water. The plan was for Guillermo to placate the bees with smoke while I isolated the queen. Less than a minute into the operation though, Guillermo started tapping me on the shoulder. “Estoy ocupado, I’m busy,” I said. He tapped even harder. I turned around and saw that his veil was filled with angry bees! He shrieked in horror as we both tumbled down the side of the ravine.

The next day was Sunday, El Dia de Mercado or market day. Everyone was there, including Guillermo. His head was the size of a beach ball and it was covered in blistering welts. From that point forward, there would be no beekeeping in Jima! It wasn’t exactly the turning point I had hoped for.

Ovejas or sheep were a different story. I received a start-up grant to purchase 30 purebred animals from New Zealand. I put five rams in each of the six schools in the paróquia. I then taught the students how to care for the animals. We cropped tails, cleaned hoofs, rotated pastures, and treated the flock for parasites. At the end of the year, we selectively bred the Kiwi stock with local, smaller but hardier creole sheep. In just two years, wool production more than doubled!

As a teacher back in the states, both lessons served me well. Teaching history to reluctant 7th and 8th graders was like keeping Africanized bees: it was a tough, tough sell. If I were to be successful, I would have to find a way to make it relevant, like warm wool in a cold climate…

And yes, my classroom was a zoo!

Folwell Dunbar is an educator, artist and advocate for animals in the classroom. He can be reached at



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