Keep classroom pets out of the wild

At the end of the school year, prevent the release of invasive plants and animals into the environment by following RIPPLE recommendations for proper handling and disposal.

June 4, 2018 - Author: Paige Filice, and Tara Eavy, Michigan State University Extension

Aquariums are great learning tools in the classroom and should never be released into the wild.
Aquariums are great learning tools in the classroom and should never be released into the wild.

Some of the most memorable moments in the classroom are the ones shared with the class hamster, fish, gecko or other animal. Pets enrich classroom learning by teaching responsibility and sensitivity towards living things. A student exposed to animals in the classroom may have higher self-esteem, nurturing skills, social skills and interest in attending class. Integrating animals into the curriculum also encourages a greater appreciation for the complexity of life. Use of live animals helps students develop observation and comparison skills as they study the shared and unique traits of specific organisms.

Classroom pets enable educators to teach responsibility towards not only living creatures, but also their habitats and Michigan’s ecosystems. To demonstrate that responsible behavior, teachers should take steps to prevent the release of classroom fish, plants or other animals into the wild. As the National Science Teachers Association recommends, teachers should “refrain from releasing animals into a non-indigenous environment.” Many non-native plants and animals are used in the classroom, and some can become invasive in the wild. Once introduced, they can disrupt the food chain and outcompete native species for food and habitat. Even those that are ill-equipped to survive our Michigan winters can cause harm while alive, and can introduce disease to our native flora and fauna.

Some of Michigan’s notorious invaders, such as rusty and red swamp crayfish, have been kept as learning aids in classrooms. Crayfish are fun to watch and are easy to feed and care for, making them ideal additions to an aquarium. They play an important role in aquatic food chains as scavengers, cleaning up dead plants and animals for their food. However, both red swamp and rusty crayfish are now illegal to possess in Michigan and unfortunately are difficult to identify when young and can be accidentally sold by biological supply companies and pet stores by mistake to teachers. These crayfish compete aggressively with native species for food and habitat and can even reduce shoreline habitat and decrease water quality due to their aggressive burrowing. Both species have been found in the wild in Michigan and were likely introduced from an aquarium that was released into a river or stream.

Therefore, as we come to the end of the school year, it is important to be aware of alternatives to releasing classroom animals and plants into the wild. Even native species of crayfish, fish and birds that are caught in the wild and brought into the classroom for learning, should never be re-released into the wild because of their potential as vectors for disease. Investigate loaning or giving them to dedicated hobbyists, environmental learning centers, aquariums or zoos. Unwanted fish, plants and animals can often be returned to local, independent retailers, but be sure to inquire before arriving with a bucket full of fish! If unable to find a home for your classroom pets, contact a veterinarian or pet retailer for guidance on humane disposal.

Michigan’s invasive species education initiative, RIPPLE (Reduce Invasive Pet and Plant Escapes) was developed by Michigan State University Extension and adopted by the Michigan Departments of Natural Resources, Environmental Quality and Agriculture and Rural Development. Through RIPPLE, educators can request free materials on invasive species that can be used in the classroom. More information about invasive species, regulations and prevention can be found on the State of Michigan invasive species website.

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