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GERBILS STARVED DURING SUMMER IN CLASSROOM

A teacher says she asked a custodian to feed the animals, but that didn't happen.

A Freedom High School science teacher told investigators she'd talked to a custodian about feeding the gerbils in her classroom over the summer, according Hillsborough County Animal Services.

But the rodents didn't get fed - and some turned to cannibalism as the animals starved to death, said Pam Perry, the investigative manager for animal services.

Perry cited Margaret Barthel with 10 counts of animal cruelty. But the group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals says that doesn't go far enough.

The animal advocacy group launched a blistering attack on the veteran science teacher, sending letters to the school's principal, the district superintendent and the School Board chair asking that Barthel be prosecuted by law enforcement and disciplined by the school district.

"The only way that Freedom High can ensure that animals will stop suffering and dying at the school is to adopt a strict policy prohibiting the use of all animals in classrooms," PETA executive Kathy Guillermo said in a statement. Perry said the State Attorney's office declined to prosecute and referred the matter to the school district.

The district's investigation is ongoing, said Steve Hegarty, a spokesman from Hillsborough County Schools.

"She's a veteran teacher," he said. "She's been with us about 10 years and we've never had a complaint against her before."

A teacher called authorities on July 16 to report that she saw dead animals in the classroom, Perry said. "The teacher indicated that this had happened before," Perry said.

"When we got there, there was an individual trying to clean up the scene and at that point we ordered him stop because it had become a crime scene," she said.

She photographed the animals' remains in a cramped cage, and saw a ball python without a heat lamp.

"It was horrible," Perry said.

Perry said she found that Barthel left for the summer and sent an e-mail to a custodian promising a tip if the animals were fed over the break.

"Ultimately, it was her responsibility. The custodians are not responsible for taking care of animals," Perry said.

Barthel could not be reached for comment and did not respond to telephone messages.

Hegarty said Barthel did make arrangements and he's not sure if the district or Freedom can comply with PETA's request.

"I'm not sure that (removing animals from all classrooms) is a reasonable request," Hegarty said.

Robbyn Mitchell can be reached at rmitchell@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3373.

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