A Survival Guide to Snakes in the Classroom.

John Romano with an Eastern Indigo snake.
John Romano with an Eastern Indigo snake.

My wife is very forgiving which is why I can store my frozen rodents in the freezer. No, we are not dining on these rodents, but the menagerie of snakes in my life are.  In my previous post I discussed the benefits of keeping snakes in the classroom. An animal long stigmatized has the ability to instill confidence and curiosity in students.

I have been keeping snakes since I was in my early teens and worked as a reptile behavior researcher before becoming a teacher. The entry of snakes into my classroom was a natural progression for me and it was because of my vast experience with them that my administrator had no problem allowing them into the classroom. I have discovered science teachers get a little more leeway in acting eccentric. So a snake as a classroom pet is within our realm of normalcy.

In this post I hope to give other educators a good foundation for keeping snakes in their classroom. A classroom pet is always a good way to teach responsibility. Administrators love any outside-the-box methods of teaching. Let them know students will be using this animal not just to learn science, but to learn important life skills like responsibility and compassion.

Your administrator may bring up questions about health risks. Salmonella is often associated with pet reptiles. This can be a bit misleading. Most animals, including pets like hamsters and guinea pigs can carry salmonella, but because turtles are wild caught, and often live in terrariums there is a better chance of salmonella living on their shell. In fact the CDC considers turtles, water frogs, chicks, and ducklings to be risky pets. I have seen all of these animals in classrooms. Most snakes are kept in the same cage setup as hamsters and have little risk of ever having salmonella on their skin. I have been handling snakes for 25 years and admittedly have poor hand washing skills and have never had an issue. I do keep multiple bottles of hand sanitizer in the classroom and make sure the students properly sanitize after handling and/or cleaning.

I would wager students are more likely to salmonella in the lunch line than they are from snakes in a classroom.

So how do you get the students interested in taking care of snakes?

Most kids have a natural curiosity that will lead them there. A great way to pique this interest is to handle the snake in front of the students so they can see how easy it is. Modeling is always a great method for teaching students. Once one student comes up and holds the snake others will follow. From this point, when you have students asking to hold the snake is where you begin to add in the caretaking responsibilities. Which believe it or not are minimal. A student needs to changes the water bowl every couple of days or whenever it gets dirty (snakes love pooping in water bowls). When the snake does not defecate in the water bowl spot cleaning needs to be done. Simply taking a paper towel and picking up the feces. Other than feeding (we will get to in a minute) this is all that needs to be done.

I have a rule with my students, you cannot continue to hold and interact with the snakes unless you partake in the care taking process. Of course I let them interact with the snakes before they have any cleaning responsibility, you need to get them hooked. Plus you need to make sure they feel confident going in and out of the cage.

Feeding the snakes is what the students want to see. I do not feed live rodents. I learned my lesson when I was breeding mice for snake consumption and a student came up to me asking where Mocha and Cinnamon had gone. I feed my snakes frozen/thawed rodents. Simple, easy to do, and much cheaper.

I will on occasion feed a live rodent to a snake for students because it is an amazing process to watch. For most students it is like have a nature documentary unfold in front of them.

I do let the students personally feed the snakes, they really love this part. It makes them feel very accomplished to be able to say “I fed a rat to a python”. Which they will often brag to their friends about which will in turn bring more students to me asking to be involved.

I have set up a system where I have one student leader, this year she is a senior. The student leader has proven to me over the course of a year she can handle the animals and is trusted to lead younger students in snake keeping. There are about five other students who come twice a week to take care of the snakes with her. To sweeten the deal they earn community service hours, a requirement at our school.  I am there in case anything happens but I try to step back and let the students own the program. The worst case scenario is a student gets bitten by a snake. This is not a frequent occurrence but it does happen. Usually the end result is them taking a picture of a tiny spec of blood. All of them comment on how little it hurt and they were more scared of the surprise than of the bite. Smaller non venomous snakes don’t really pack any sort of a punch. A paper cut hurts worse than a corn snake bite, but the initial surprise is what frightens most people.

Once bitten, the students lose most of their fear and wear it as a badge of honor.

The most important aspect of making a snake work successfully in your classroom is you. The level of enthusiasm and interest you have dictates the level the students have. If you begin to lose interest in the animal so will the students. But really, who could ever lose interest in a snake?

If you are looking for more information on the nuts and bolts of keeping snakes I highly recommend the website. Kingsnake.com I have been using it for 15 years. It has everything you need from care sheets to breeders to reptile events.

As always, if you have any questions you would like to ask feel free to tweet me @paleoromano. I will be more than happy to answer any questions.

 

 

 

 

Author: Mike Klymkowsky

I am a Professor of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology at the University of Colorado Boulder. Growing up in Pennsylvania, I earned a bachelors degree in biophysics from Penn State then moved to California and earned a Ph.D. from CalTech (working for a time at UCSF and the Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic). I was a Muscular Dystrophy Association post-doctoral fellow at University College London and the Rockefeller University before moving to Boulder. My research has involved a number of topics, including neurotransmitter receptor structure, cytoskeletal organization and ciliary function, neural crest formation, and signaling systems in the context of the clawed frog Xenopus laevis as well as biology education research, leading to the development of the Biological Concepts Instrument (BCI), a suite of virtuallaboratory activities, and biofundamentals, a re-designed introductory molecular biology course. I have a close collaboration with Melanie Cooper (@Michigan State) that has resulted in transformed (and demonstrably effective and engaging) course materials in general and organic chemistry known as CLUE: Chemistry, Life, the Universe & Everything. I was in the first class of Pew Biomedical Scholars and am a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

One thought on “A Survival Guide to Snakes in the Classroom.”

  1. I’m glad someone else thinks the whole salmonella thing is blown out of proportion! I too have never had any symptoms or illness and I’ve been keeping snakes most of my life.

    Like

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