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School rule lets animals stay

When Eugene Trescott heard school officials were considering a ban on animals in the classroom, he wondered what would become of his exotic menagerie.

The Citrus High School biology teacher keeps snakes, turtles, frogs, fish and other wildlife caged inside a classroom that students know as the zoo.

He has a 7-foot boa constrictor that his students love to hang around their necks. They also take turns with a smaller rosy boa and a Mexican gopher snake. A turtle that once won the Cooter Fest race now swims with other smaller turtles in a tub. And he owns a lungfish that, much to the delight of his students, once bit Trescott's finger during a lesson on evolution.

Would a ban on animals mean he would have to find new homes for these and all of the other critters in his classroom?

"That's part of what I show, what I teach" Trescott said. "That's part of me."

It turns out, Trescott won't have to shed a single one.

The school district's health advisory committee decided to continue allowing animals in the classroom after the proposed ban drew protests from teachers like Trescott.

The committee instead recommended that principals require teachers to notify parents whenever animals are brought into the classroom. Parents must sign consent forms and let the teacher know whether their children have any animal allergies.

"We're not eliminating animals from schools," said Cathy Reckenwald, the district's health specialist, who sits on the committee. "We're just getting a tighter control on them."

The committee's recommendations say some animals are unwelcome guests. For example, teachers can no longer show birds inside the classroom.

The reasons?

"Bird flu is going around the world," Reckenwald said. "We don't want to have that here."

Also, birds such as chickens and parrots can leave a messy trail of feathers. School nurses don't want students with allergies exposed to poultry dander. Any show-and-tell involving birds must occur outside the classroom.

Barbie Anderson, curriculum specialist at Pleasant Grove Elementary School, isn't sure what that will mean for teachers who incubate eggs inside the classroom so students can watch how a chicken is born. The school's media center also has been known to house chickens, ducks and quails.

"I hope we can strike a compromise," she said.

Anderson, whose job is also to be the school's "critter permitter," said she is comfortable with the measures that are in place to make sure animals don't pose a danger to students.

As it is, few teachers keep animals in the classroom, she said. If a student is known to have an allergy that can be aggravated by the presence of a hamster or a gerbil, the animal is removed.

The committee's recommendations are not binding, Reckenwald said, but she hopes principals, particularly at the elementary level, where children can be more careless, enforce them.

"We feel animals really benefit kids in the classroom," she said. "What we're saying is keep better tracking methods. In all cases, we want to make sure parents are aware of what pets are in the classroom."

Perhaps no one understands the benefits of animals in the classroom better than Trescott.

On Friday, the students in his Biology I course spent the first hour watching a video and later reading from a textbook. He allowed the students to interact with the animals the remainder of the course.

Trescott usually spends the first few weeks introducing students to the animals. During "the wildlife tour," as Trescott calls it, he goes over animal safety and asks students if anyone has animal allergies. Few even know they are allergic to bee stings, he said.

Those who have known allergies to animal dander, Trescott said, can take the same course with a different biology teacher who doesn't keep animals in the classroom. Few do, he said. Instead, those students opt for antihistamines.

More often, students come to the classroom with phobias, not allergies.

As some students rushed from their seats to open the snake cages along the front of the classroom, sophomore Ashley Roderick opted to stay in her chair. She sat in the back of the room, which is known as "the safe zone." The closest animal was a shriveled-looking fish swimming inside a saltwater tank across from her desk.

"My mom said never trust snakes. They can turn on you and bite you," she said.

But she doesn't mind sharing a classroom with them or the other creatures.

"Just because I don't touch the snakes doesn't mean the others shouldn't get to play with them," she said.

Like Roderick, other students in Trescott's class said having animals made biology fun.

"You can see pictures in a book, but you don't know what it's like until you see them up close," sophomore Eric Baum said while balancing the 7-foot boa constrictor on his shoulders. "I would be so bored if I had to take notes all day."

Eddy Ramirez can be reached at eramirez@sppimes.com or (352) 860-7305.

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