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Animals Are Teachers in This Virginia Classroom

  • Deborah Block

"Hi," announces a friendly white cockatoo as you enter the animal science laboratory at the only Career Center in Arlington, Virginia.

Besides talking birds, there are about 50 species of animals here, including head-butting goats and a giant tortoise that doesn't mind hanging out with chickens. An influx of high school students comes to learn from them.

It's "so cute," says Elleny Alemu as she holds a contented cinnamon-colored rabbit in her arms like a baby. "I'm going to be getting one of these soon."

But Miguel Zambrano doesn't feel the same way about Snickers, a temperamental, brown mini-horse to whom he's feeding hay in hopes she will let him brush her out.

"She gets mad if you just sometimes don't pay attention to her," he said. "I do not want a horse. It's going to be way too much work."

This year, 70 students are taking part in the yearlong animal science program that includes both hands-on experience and classes. The students receive high school credits, but more importantly, they get the chance to learn what it's like to work with animals.

Not always pleasant

Sydney Miller, who wants to be a veterinary technician, is taking a rabbit for a stroll to give it exercise. She guides the animal — wearing a collar and tethered to a leash, like a dog — through aisles bordered by cages that include rats, salamanders and a hedgehog.

"I love animals," Miller said. "I wanted to learn more about different kinds of animals and get hands-on experience."

That experience includes the not-so-fun task of cleaning the rabbit's cage.

"Rabbits are very dirty, actually," she explained. "I have to clean his litter box and bedding every day."

Animal science teacher Cindy Schall said there are many U.S. high school animal science programs, but what makes this one unique is the wide variety of creatures — including exotic sugar gliders, little nocturnal marsupials with big eyes that are native to Australia and Indonesia.

Every two weeks, the students take turns caring for a different animal, from cats to scorpions.

"Part of working with them is what we call hand taming," Schall said. "So they're supposed to be holding them for at least 10 minutes."

But what if a student is nervous about handling a tarantula or a snake?

Schall helps by holding the animal herself first, encouraging the student to ease into it by touching the creature, and then holding it. After that, "they're usually fine with the animal," she said.

Emotional bonds

The students also have to weigh the animals and check them for health problems.

Sarah Maller is using a small flashlight to look into the eyes of a brush-tailed rodent called a degu.

"I have to see if there are any little eyelashes or anything in the way, or scratches, or cataracts to see if there's any cloudiness," she explained.

Kimberly Rodriquez said she learns something new about each animal, as she feeds a turtle a tiny dead mouse in a tank with small fish. She was surprised to discover this diamondback terrapin is a "carnivore and he gets along with all the fish."

The students rely on guidance from lab assistant Rebecca Brumbaugh, who said that, like people, animals have minds of their own.

"They have their good days and their bad days," she said.

Megan Johnson, who hopes to become a vet, has figured out how to get along with the chinchilla she's petting.

"The animals have different personalities and they connect with different humans," she said.

As Ruben Stann weighs a golden-colored albino horned frog, he said he feels an emotional bond with animals.

"You kind of have to make a little connection,” he said. “For me, it's very relaxing."

And that connection to the natural world is sometimes hard for the students to find in mostly urban Northern Virginia.

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