The issue of using animals as class “pets” is particularly important to us here at TeachKind, largely because this practice is so prevalent—and because so many well-intentioned educators are misinformed about it. Animals don’t belong in the classroom, and many teachers end up putting them in harm’s way without even realizing it. It’s noble to strive to teach kids about animal science, the life cycle, and responsibility, but risking an animal’s life to do so is unacceptable—and thankfully, every lesson that can be taught with a classroom “pet” can also easily be taught using humane methods.
When animals are confined to small cages or tanks in schools, their needs are rarely met and their natural instincts simply can’t be accommodated. For example, the natural sleep/wake cycles of most small mammals are completely incompatible with life in a classroom. Reptiles require a huge commitment in terms of time, space, and money that few schools can truly fulfill. And most fish in classrooms don’t receive proper care or have ideal living conditions, either. The bright light, noise, and chaos of a classroom is inherently disruptive to animals—and when dozens of inexperienced young hands have access to them, the likelihood that they will be mishandled, fall victim to accidents, and even be abused is high.
When you consider these facts, the high number of deadly disasters involving animals that have occurred in classrooms comes as no surprise. Nearly every week, TeachKind hears of young people abusing animals—and this includes those kept in schools. (We can only assume that countless other cases of neglect and abuse of classroom “pets” are never reported.) All of this is only made worse by the overwhelmingly disturbing, callous, and cavalier attitudes that many people have about classroom “pets.”
If you peruse various teacher forums and blogs on the internet, you’ll notice an ongoing theme when it comes to the discussion of classroom “pets”: They’re consistently treated like nothing more than tools.
Teacher forums contain countless comments about throwing out dead animals and quickly replacing them with new ones (even when the others died from abuse or neglect). People talk about these deaths callously, as if they were inevitable—but in fact, many were completely avoidable.
For example, consider this blog post written by a parent, “That Time I Killed My Kid’s Classroom Pet #Oops.” The title alone denotes a complete lack of sensitivity toward the animals who died as a result of the adults’ irresponsible behavior. In the anecdote, the family was unprepared to care for the three African dwarf frogs they’d signed up to adopt and ended up killing within one weekend—because they neglected to read the instructions that were sent home with the student regarding the animals’ needs. The article ends with the disclosure that the family will be making a trip to the pet store—as if these animals were replaceable objects rather than individual living beings who suffered traumatic and painful deaths.
In another blog post written by an elementary school teacher, the narrator laments the untimely death of a hamster kept in a classroom. The teacher writes regretfully about the hamster’s stress-filled life, saying, “It is no sad event. In fact, looking back over this little guy’s life, he has really been through a lot of trauma. Being a classroom pet to 20 hyper inner city kids (who think poking a hamster with pencils is a sport) probably didn’t prolong his life. I am forced to reflect on his death and the death of my previous hamster, who passed away alone in my classroom over last Thanksgiving break.”
So, let’s think about this: We quickly learn that the teacher was well aware of the trauma and abuse that this hamster suffered in her classroom and that another hamster had already died under her care after being left alone during a holiday break. Further on in the post, she describes tossing the dead animal into the school dumpster before students arrived on their first day back.
She also states, “[D]warf hamsters have a life expectancy of two years, so I was forced to reflect on what might have caused his departure a year early. … [H]is classroom experience with 20 seven-year-old students feeding him crayons probably had a little to do with it.”
Allowing a group of children to poke a hamster with pencils and feed him crayons will certainly contribute to his untimely death. It’s tragic that something so avoidable occurred.
Incidents like these are the result of a culture that allows educators to treat animals like teaching tools or classroom novelties. As a compassionate educator, you have the power to start changing that culture by making sure that you never allow animals into your classroom. No matter how tempting it may be to get a classroom “pet,” it’s never OK to risk the life and well-being of a sensitive and sentient creature.
The following comments written by teachers and students, which we’ve compiled from various forums and blogs, show exactly why animals don’t belong in the classroom.
Suffering caused by stress is extremely common for animals kept in classrooms:
“We had a teacher who had a pet guinea pig last year. Poor thing was always so stressed out and wouldn’t let anyone near it. He just hid in his little box all day. :(“
Teachers unintentionally neglecting or mishandling animals have resulted in the animals’ deaths:
“HORROR STORY TIME: A kindergarten teacher accidentally left her warming lights in her egg incubator on for too long. It cooked ALL her eggs. They exploded bits of cooked egg and partially developed chicken fetuses. She had to run to the farming supply store and buy chicks. She just told the kids all the eggs hatched. ANOTHER kindergarten teacher had a chick hatch with its insides on its outside. The kids were horrified. The teachers were screaming. They flushed it down the toilet.” (These animals were used in cruel chick-hatching projects in the classroom.)
Contrary to some misleading information out there, the animals commonly kept in classrooms actually have needs that are very specific and often require a great deal of work. Many teachers end up harming or killing classroom “pets” out of unintentional neglect or forgetfulness—or simply because they’re uninformed about animals’ needs.
Here are some examples of what can happen when teachers don’t properly research animals before bringing them home:
- “My wife had a rabbit with her first graders. … Her room smelled terrible for the whole school year. But, she managed to murder a whole school of goldfish because she didn’t listen to me about chlorine in the water.”
- “[O]ur pet guinea pig Cupcake died this morning …. I am feeling sooooo flipping upset about it—especially because I just read that cedar bedding is toxic (even though it says it’s ok for guinea pigs) a parent bought it for us last week & I used it & another parent told me it wasn’t good for her so I gave it back & asked him to return it & buy the same one we were using (pine) & in just that week I guess she got sick & died.”
- “I had a millipede a few years ago, he was easy to handle but I am afraid that it may have contributed to his untimely death.”
- “I’ve had a hermit crab before, but he kind of creeped me out when I found him out of the cage and out of his shell!! He had other shells, he just wouldn’t go into them. He died shortly after that.”
And of course, leaving animals alone for a weekend (or even overnight) can easily result in disaster:
- “I had little tree frogs my first year. I thought it was basically expected of me as a primary teacher. I had to buy crickets every few days, clean the tank, bring them home on breaks—it was a total disaster. Then one long weekend I forgot to refill the water, and I came in to frog chips. It was so awful—I felt terrible. No more pets for me.”
- “I teach in a very old building that cannot regulate heat or [air conditioning] well. This winter, the power went out due to a wind storm. The power surge broke a thermostat and my classroom got to over [120˚ F]. All my plants died, they were roasted. The science teachers’ poor fish …”
In this disturbing story, a fish who’d been in a classroom was raffled off to a student at the end of the year. The following year, two aquatic frogs died untimely deaths in the classroom, likely resulting from improper care. This teacher apparently swore off class “pets” but then reconsidered getting another one:
“I’ve had a beta fish w/ the plant, and the students really liked having him …. [H]e was relatively easy to care for, except that he really smelled when we cleaned his water (at least once a week). I raffled Elvis off at the end of the year to one of the students. Last year, I thought the same idea (the big vase w/ the plant) would be a good idea, but this time with two little aquatic frogs (African frogs? I forget what they were called). One died pretty quickly, but the other lasted for a while. I actually killed him [accidentally], by using water that was too warm (at least, I think that’s what happened). I let the kids believe that he expired from natural causes (although my son knows the truth!), and I decided [no] more class pets. … Of course, now that a new year is approaching, I am thinking, “Maybe a class pet would be fun.”
This third-grade teacher from Texas callously describes some extremely disturbing experiences she had keeping hamsters in her classroom. No animals should have to suffer like this:
“[T]he science teacher gave us a hamster. The next day the science teacher came in my classroom and said we had to take its ‘sisters’ in or else it would be lonely and die. So, I went from 0 to 3 hamsters in about 48 hours. About a month later, one of the kids screamed that there were babies. Yes, somehow the ‘sisters’ had a litter of babies. Then they ate the babies. Then I convinced the science teacher to take the two sisters back and leave me with only the brother hamster. Then he committed suicide. So the science teacher brought back the two ‘sisters’ and threw the dead one away. Then like 3 weeks later, over the weekend when a student was taking care of them, the two sisters had more babies. Then they ate them again. A few weeks later, I was sick one day and the sisters ate each other when I had a substitute. I was totally freaked out, but the science teacher convinced me that they only ate each other because they were so inbred. She drove to PetSmart and brought me back two good looking baby hamsters. … I sent them home over the summer with a little girl who loves animals. Last week her mom texted me and told me she’s scarred for life because apparently she went to feed them and one ate part of the other one.”
Sadly, animal abuse by students is another common cause of suffering and death for class “pets.”
Here are some descriptions from teachers of various situations in which students harmed animals:
- “My high schoolers put moon sand in the aquarium because they thought the fish should have a more natural environment. We don’t have class pets anymore.”
- “The 9th graders, despite being an honors class and receiving a ‘don’t put stuff in the fish tank’ [warning] proceeded to regularly drop pencils, glue, paper, whatever they had in their pockets, etc., in the fish tank. My fish dropped like flies. I even restocked with new fish (pointlessly) a few times throughout the semester. … The last straw was when a kid dumped that nasty sand that weighs down tape [dispensers] into my tank, as well as some pencil shavings, into my tank one day when I had a sub. Came back to everything dead.”
- “When I first started at my school I inherited a pet hamster. The poor thing was woken up in the day, dragged out of its house and I often found myself catching her poor cage before it landed on the floor after having 4 year olds knock it.”
This heartbreaking account of the continued abuse of hamsters was written by a student:
“Our classroom was extremely loud as there were thirty kids in it at once. The boys would actually hold the hamsters by their hind legs and dangle them midair, feed them unhealthy snack foods, and hate on Lennie because he bit them once. They would ‘joke around’ by saying our teacher should strap him to a rocket and launch him. Stanley ended up having a bloody stool and almost died (may I mention that [he survived] due to luck as my teacher didn’t get a vet). My teacher knew Syrian hamsters fought, so he told the kids not to put them together. He didn’t watch them carefully enough. Stanley and Lennie were put together by a girl and ended up getting in a huge fight immediately. There was growling, scratching, and biting. Both hamsters survived, but had scabs all over and stress from the whole situation.”
No matter how good one’s intentions are, when animals are treated as expendable, replaceable teaching tools, they’re at risk of suffering and dying. Animals aren’t objects, and they should never be treated as such. Keeping animals as “pets” in the classroom is incredibly cruel—and it teaches students the dangerous lesson that it’s OK to use living beings as means to an end.