Teachers' Pets: Tips for keeping classroom animals and new ways to engage your students

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healthy tortoise pet

Healthy pet tortoise

Here is a picture showing the large enclosure and special lighting requirements to keep a tortoise kept indoors healthy.

Image courtesy of Beth Girard.

healthy tortoise pet

View of tortoise's enclosure from above

Another view of the tortoise enclosure.

Image courtesy of Beth Girard.

healthy tortoise pet

Outdoor learning

Outdoor learning can be a great way to grasp students' attention; even the most urban wetlands are teaming with life. Partnering with a local nature center, park, or other DNR staff can be educational for both the students and the instructor. Here is a DNR staff person teaching students about the fishes of Minnesota.

healthy tortoise pet

Fish Survey

DNR staff show students one of many techniques used to survey Minnesota fishes.

healthy tortoise pet

Students learn to identify Minnesota fishes

Students learning to identify Minnesota fishes. Hands-on experiences like this can grasp students' attention and hopefully ignite their passion for the environment and the creatures that inhabit it.

It is important to grasp students’ attention in the classroom, and science classrooms offer a plethora of opportunities to do so. One of the more common ways teachers engage students in a science classroom, especially those in a biological or an environmental course, is through the keeping of classroom animals. Whether teachers select amphibians, birds, fishes, insects, mammals, or reptiles, it is important to be mindful of the past, present, and future responsibilities that keeping an animal in the classroom will bring. Whenever possible, observe animals in the wild and release after brief discussion (many small wetlands contain a diverse group of animals and plants). Below are a few points that should be considered BEFORE bringing animals into the classroom.

Buy only captive bred animals! Wild-caught animals are still common in the pet-trade, many of which are illegally collected – poached, and should be avoided when possible. It is important to ask animal sellers, pet-stores, and biological supply companies where the animal of interest originated. If they cannot tell you, they are most likely wild caught.

  • Keep receipts and paperwork for animals obtained for educational use.
  • Special permits, or hunting or fishing licenses may be required to take or be in possession of animals taken from the wild (e.g., native fishes, birds, frogs, turtles, endangered or threatened species) or animal parts (e.g., bird feathers, bird or turtle eggs, bird nests, or dead birds).
    • For more information, or to obtain a permit to keep native game fishes in the classroom, please contact Colleen Telander in Fisheries Research. 
  • You must exchange water in buckets or containers used to transport aquatic animals with tap or bottled water prior to leaving any waterbody to prevent the spread of aquatic invasive species or diseases.

Choose appropriate animals! Many species make poor captives, especially those that require specialized diets or extreme temperatures (i.e., not all animals can thrive at room temperature).

  • It is often illegal to take animals from the wild, especially rare and/or state-listed species.
  • Many of the popular classroom pets (e.g., frogs, salamanders, snakes, and turtles) do not make good “hands-on” animals. Regular handling can cause additional stress to animals.
  • Many animal species can live a long time (in excess of 10 years). Turtles, for example, can live over 25 years. Try to choose short-lived or easily adoptable species (e.g., mice, rats, hamsters, some insects).
  • Contact local non-profit organizations to adopt animals in need of a home (e.g., humane societies, MN Herpetological Society).

Think long term! It is important to have plans in place for animals once the course is over, or during the summer months.

  • Animals maintained in captivity should NOT be released back into the wild. Disease and invasive species are significant problems facing wild animal populations. Animals may appear healthy while cared for in captivity but can harbor disease or parasites that would be fatal to that individual if returned to the wild, or put a wild population at significant risk. The risk of spreading disease to wild animal populations far out-weighs the benefit of releasing an individual or two back into the wild. Learn more about amphibian and reptile, and fish diseases.
  • Releasing animals into the wild may also interfere with wild animal populations’ genetic, age, and/or gender dynamics.
  • It is illegal to release non-native animals in Minnesota.
  • Ideally, unwanted animals should be gifted to other educators to use in their classroom(s), or to naturalists at regional or state parks. Alternatively, animals could be given to local humane or non-profit societies. If having difficulties placing unwanted animals, please contact the appropriate regional DNR Nongame Wildlife Specialist.

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