Leopard geckos, degus, a sand boa, fishes and a painted turtle all call Steve McClintock’s science classroom home.
In the morning before the bell rings, the science lab at Kent City Middle School also provides sanctuary for students who want to see the animals, care for them or just hang out.
“I don’t even have all of them in class,” McClintock said. “They just come in, help take care of the animals and then they go about their day.”
Every morning, a group select of middle schoolers — Emily Lantzer, Austin Loew and brothers Sawyer and Austin DeGroot — devote their time to feeding the animals and maintaining their habitats.
The students are fully equipped with knowledge about the creatures’ behaviors, from molting to mating to the likelihood a creature’s tail, if severed, would grow back.
“I used to have 25 animals at my house,” Emily said, with a degu (pronounced day-goo), a rodent closely related to and resembling a rat, sniffing the air from its perch on her shoulder. “Three cats, a lot of chickens, five degus, four rabbits, five fishes and a lot more.”
The degu on her shoulder was one of two she donated to the classroom. Most of the other animals also arrived by donation, McClintock said.
“A lot of the community members and my former students know I have a classroom zoo at times,” he said. “A lot of times parents will give me a phone call or give me a heads-up: ‘We’ve got an animal, you want it?'”
Animals Pique Career Interests
The pod of caretakers are responsible for other students, making sure they treat the animals with respect. For Sawyer DeGroot, it’s also an opportunity to pursue a passion for biology.
“I really liked learning from the animals and seeing what all their cool features are,” Sawyer said. “That would be a great career.”
Austin Loew said one of his top matches from an online career assessment was zookeeper. When he learned the sand boa escaped a previous year, he said, “I should have been there!”
Emily scooped her hand slowly along the sand to find the docile reptile, taking extra care because he’s close to molting his skin. He sometimes eats as many as two mice a week, she said.
McClintock has in the past kept an iguana with a mean temper, and a bearded dragon who died in the fall. The creatures sometimes come in handy during lessons. He’s had students go on to study biology in college, or become teachers with class pets in their own classrooms. But for most, he said, it’s about community and curiosity.
“A lot of times it’s a safe haven for kids to come in and care for animals, which goes way beyond anything I can teach,” hesaid.