Director of Public Information and Community Involvement
In The News
Creatures featured at Deer Park
(June 21, 2012) - A lot of schools have classroom pets. But at Deer Park Elementary School, home of the Newport News Public Schools environmental science magnet program, creatures rule. The school is home to a boatload of beasts with fur, feathers and fins.
The entrance of the school features murals of outdoor habitats and their residents, a terrarium, an aquarium and a Fund-a-Friend tree with photos of critters in need of sponsors. On display in the office are society finches, a contained ecosystem with turtles and anoles (lizards) and until recently, an aquarium with an albino African clawed frog. Down the hall is GI (green iguana) Joe, a spiny reptile more accurately called GI Jane.
Classroom critters include hermit crabs, hamsters and rabbits, lots of rabbits. But, it's not because the school is a breeding ground for bunnies. Those mammals are spayed and neutered, according to Julie Ward, Deer Park's chief animal wrangler. Ward, who has a degree in biology, is one of a kind in the Newport News Public Schools ranks. She assists teachers and performs conventional classroom duties. She's also responsible for the care of Deer Park's menagerie, which can mean turtle triage or rounding up a runaway rabbit.
Ward says, "One of the chief things animals offer is real-life lessons." Which brings us back to Prince, the aforementioned albino frog and the longest-lived of Deer Park's creatures until his recent, unexpected demise. Mortality offers a teaching moment, and school staffers say Deer Park students are familiar with life cycles. Ward says Prince, who resembled a mutant marshmallow, helped students appreciate diversity. "He wasn't warm and fuzzy, but provided great entertainment," she explains.
There have been births at Deer Park, among the hamsters and incubated chicken eggs. But, most of the animals live alone or in single-sex dorms. They offer daily lessons in care and behavior that are incorporated into the school's science-based curriculum. Students learn responsibility, too, Ward says, a tutorial that extends to their families when they take home animals during vacations.
The mammals are farmed out when school is closed for three or more days. The remainder – fish, birds, amphibians, crustaceans and reptiles – are year-round Deer Park residents. The exotic species pose challenges, given the district's energy-management policies, which turn down heat and air-conditioning when schools aren't in use. Deer Park uses aquarium heaters, heat lamps and humidifiers to keep the inhabitants healthy. And, Principal Mary Jo Anastasio, in her second year at Deer Park, comes in on weekends to tend her flock, feeding, watering and cleaning cages as needed.
Veterinarians developed the protocols for animal care, and visit regularly. But, it's Ward who does much of the heavy lifting, fetching 25-pound bags of rabbit chow, bales of bedding, crickets by the dozen and fresh vegetables and fruit. Deer Park students grow greens in the school courtyard to supplement the animals' diets. Turtles, birds, fish and hermit crabs all have specialized food.
The costs add up quickly, which led to the Fund-a-Friend program. A bag of rabbit or guinea pig chow (they have different dietary needs) costs $23-$35, and lasts about two weeks. The school goes through 200 live crickets, about $1 per dozen, every two weeks. Bedding runs about $7 for six cubic feet, and the school uses about 10 bales a month.
Ward is a pet owner but says her job calls for detachment, since she has to play the part of a clinician. It was Ward who discovered that Bella, a rabbit who resides in the fifth-grade classroom of Lindy Doeppe, is male. He's now known as Bella the Fella. Ward says some older animals have "retired," been adopted out to quieter homes, since some hubbub is a given in elementary school classrooms.
While Deer Park is home to creatures great and small, it's not an animal shelter or rescue group. Ward says students are taught to understand and respect wild animals – and leave them in their natural environment. The students also learn that pets related to wild species are still domesticated, lacking the skills and know-how that enable their kin to survive outdoors.
Deer Park has branched out in recent years. Three themes, Air, Land and Water, alternate from year to year, with different habitats and ecosystems emphasized, but mammals, especially rabbits, used to rule the roost. Anastasio has introduced other species, including the iguana, one of her pet projects. Other newcomers include turtles, lizards, spiders and worms. There's a butterfly garden in the courtyard, and the school is adding a jellyfish aquarium to the lineup. Call it a case of animal magnetism.