One of the coolest perks of teaching science is being able to have classroom animals. I actually didn’t start bringing animals into my classroom until my 3rd year of teaching. For me, I wanted to make sure I had the whole “teaching thing” down before I added extra responsibilities onto my plate.
However, I wish I would have started sooner because it was far less work than I expected and my kids absolutely loved it!
During the first few days of school, I took a few moments to introduce each animal’s name, interesting facts, and proper way to handle them. That way my students felt more comfortable and were more prepared before taking each animal out.
Wait…did you just say take them out?
Every teacher is different, but I always allowed my students to hold my animals during the passing periods before and after class. I couldn’t believe how fast my students got to my class! My rule was that they had to get their notebook and warm-up out first, but then they could hold any of the animals until the bell rang. Once the bell rang, they had to place the animal back, wash up, and head back to their seat to complete their warm-up.
After the first couple of weeks, my students were complete pros. I found that they really liked the responsibility of taking care of the animals and actually held each other accountable when handling them.
They were also great about keeping the animals near their respective habitats and away from any other animals in the classroom. After all, some of my animals were natural predators of other ones in the wild. Although I taught my students about the importance of food chains, I didn’t exactly want to witness one in my classroom! J My students knew that holding my animals was a privilege and they could lose the right to interact with them if they were not properly taken care of.
I’ve had many different types of animals in my classroom over the years, but these are definitely my top 5 go-to choices.
- Fancy Rat
Pros: These were by far my students’ favorite animals! Rats are extremely social (so you should definitely buy them in pairs) and very interactive which of course makes them so much fun to play with. They’re also very budget friendly and you can find them at any local pet store.
Cons: They poop…a lot! The cage can get a little smelly if you don’t clean the bedding regularly. They go through their food and water pretty frequently so you need to make sure you check the supply every couple of days. Sadly, they have a shorter life span and are prone to abnormal growths and tumors.
- Corn Snake
Pros: This was always a close second in popularity with my students. Corn snakes are very tame and become extremely active when handled on a regular basis. They are very low maintenance and only require food every 1-2 weeks and a water bowl. You only have to do a spot cleaning of the bedding as needed and most will eat frozen mice (thawed first before feeding) that can be purchased in packs and kept in the freezer. They come in a variety of colors and patterns and can have a long life span of 15-20 years (although some of you might consider this last part a con!)
Cons: The initial setup can be a little expensive. Corn snakes need a tank with a sliding and locking top so they don’t escape (that would be fun to explain to your administrators.) They also need a heating pad to help regulate temperature and a log to aid in shedding their skin. All of this, plus the cost of the actual snake, can really add up.
- Bearded Dragon
Pros: These are fairly low maintenance animals that can be found in most pet stores. Bearded dragons are omnivorous and eat leafy greens and insects such as crickets and mealworms (which is fun for the kids to watch). They can be very active (especially when hunting) and like to jump on and off their log/rock. When held consistently, they can also be very docile. Mine always liked to perch high up on my shoulder to hang out.
Cons: You need to change out the uneaten leafy greens daily and it is recommended to dust their insects with calcium supplements. Bearded dragons are also prone to impaction (intestinal blockage) so you have to be careful not to feed them too many insects. They also require a larger tank with both daytime and nighttime bulbs.
- Russian Tortoise
Pros: These are also fairly low maintenance animals. Russian tortoises are extremely easy for students to handle and are very calm animals. You can place them on the floor, counter, or lab table to let them walk around and get some exercise. Plus you don’t have to worry about them running away too quickly. 🙂
Cons: Russian tortoises tend to be the least “exciting” of the animals. They often just sit there like a rock when they bask under their heat lamp or hide out under their covered area to cool off. When startled, they pull into their shell and you often have to wait a while to coax them back out. Their leafy greens (dusted with a calcium supplement) and water bowl also need to be changed daily.
- Short-Tailed Opossum
Pros: This was always a fun animal for my students because it was something unique. Don’t let the opossum part of this scare you. Short-tailed opossums are actually very small (about the size of a mouse) and very cute! You can’t really tell it’s an opossum until you see its long mouth with lots of little teeth. They have a prehensile tail that can grasp your fingers, but my students always knew not to let go since their tail wasn’t that strong when born in captivity. Their food dish and water bottle lasts quite a while (even for weeks) and my students enjoyed watching them hunt when giving them a treat of crickets or mealworms.
Cons: They can be little escape artists so you need to make sure the lid is always kept on the tank. Although short-tailed opossums adapt quickly to the classroom life, they are technically nocturnal and often like to burrow in their house to take a nap. When awake, they are extremely active (which sounds like a pro) but the constant running in the exercise wheel can be distracting for some students who sit next to the tank. They are also fairly expensive, especially for their small size, and can only be found at specialty or exotic pet stores.
Although these are my top 5 animals, I’ve tried out several others over the years. Guinea pigs, leopard geckos, hedgehogs, tarantulas, aquatic frogs, and fish have all made it into my classroom at one point. However, I felt these all had more cons for one reason or another so I eventually just stuck with my tried and true top choices.
If you’re worried about the maintenance of having classroom animals…don’t be! You’ll be surprised at how fast your students will jump at the chance to feed them for you and even do the dirty work like cleaning out their tanks and cages. That’s what I call winning!
I also offered a first come, first served opportunity for my students to take my animals home over our extended school breaks like Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Spring Break. After sending an email home to parents, all of my animals would be spoken for within hours and I never once had to take one home myself over vacation. Your students will love the chance to have them all to themselves for a while and their parents will love that there’s no long-term commitment!
If you’ve been on the fence about keeping animals in your classroom, I hope I’ve given you some good reasons to give it a try and a few fun animal suggestions to think about too. You only have to start with one animal and then you can slowly grow your classroom zoo over time! 🙂
Thanks for reading! If you get a chance, comment below and let me know what animals you love to have in your classroom!