Monday, November 28, 2011

The Power of Pets (and when they pass away)

Wilbur (front) & Orville (back)
I always take my library helpers with me when I go book shopping at our board's vendor fair. I should dedicate an entire post to that particular practice of mine but the reason I mention it in today's post has to do with my punctuality. I'm often late getting to my shopping destination for many reasons and I swore that this time would be different. I failed to begin as early as I had intended but this year I had a very good reason - I spent an hour before school at the vet with my pet skinny pig Orville.

Fudge the rabbit, dressed in holiday gear by a teacher
I have never owned a dog or a cat of my own but I can attest to the power of pets, especially the potential of pets in schools. Annie Slater, a teacher-librarian at Heritage Park P.S. and I will be presenting on this topic at the Ontario Library Association Super Conference in February. My school library has been home to several animals. I used to have a rabbit that I adopted from the pound that was specifically a school pet. We had an in-school contest to name him and he was christened Fudge. Fudge was absolutely delightful - he was huge and during some recesses when the library was quiet, we would let Fudge out of his spacious cage located in my office and let him roam the library. We'd have to watch him carefully to see that he didn't nibble any of the books. Fudge brought a lot of people into the library that never would have entered without him. The intermediate division science teacher was a big fan, as were several boys who would sit and read to Fudge. Our rabbit was a patient and friendly creature. Some of the newer teachers would sneak into the library, take him out of the cage, dress him up in clothes, and take pictures of him. Unfortunately, Fudge's fur caused some of our students to have sneezing fits, even though his cage was located in my office. These allergic reactions meant that Fudge had to find a new home. Unfortunately, my own son had an extremely bad reaction to the rabbit dander, so I couldn't keep him myself. Fudge ended up living with the family of a friend of my brother. He was renamed Sven and was spoiled even more so than he was at my school.

This picture of Max was taken by a student this year.
Another school pet introduced me to the wonders of a new type of animal - a skinny pig (hairless guinea pig). I adopted Roger the skinny pig from the pound for the purpose of being a school pet. The poor old boy only lived a few months but he intrigued me enough that eventually I bought one for my own home (named Monty). I really like skinny pigs because they are hypoallergenic, social and fascinating. Max the skinny pig is my current school pet and he is a charming little guy. He purrs like a cat when you pet him, calls to me when he wants attention, and is not flustered by the children.

L-R: Chita, Wilbur, Orville
At my own home, we own Chita & Chilli the chinchillas and Orville & Wilbur the skinny pigs. On Wednesday, November 23, my husband woke me up early in the morning to report that Orville was squealing in pain and limping around before lying unnaturally on his side. We rushed him to my veterinarian but he was not working that day. Skinny pigs count as "exotic pets" and even the city's animal hospital could not service him. The receptionist at my vet's office found another vet that could accommodate atypical pets and we rushed him over there. Orville improved a bit after he received oxygen and x-rays taken around noon showed no broken bones but in spite of the vet's best efforts, Orville died that afternoon.  

Julio the chameleon, circa December 2005
 Naturally, my own children were quite sad to hear that their pet had died. It reminded me about one of my other, more unusual school pets. Sir Julio Freaky Changini was a veiled chameleon. He belonged to relatives of an EA that worked at my school. She was dismayed to learn that these people didn't want to keep him and because chameleons are difficult to find new homes to take them, they chose to "solve their problem" by locking him in a closet and hoped he'd starve to death. The EA lived in an apartment and had no room to take him in, so my colleague and I told her we'd rescue him and let him live at school. Julio was a high-maintenance pet. He had special heat lamps and required live food like crickets and meal worms. The biggest challenge was that Julio's tongue would not work like a regular chameleon. We were never sure whether he had injured it on a sharp cricket leg or if he lost the ability to use it when he was starved, but it meant that Julio had to be hand-fed. My friend would manually open his mouth and I would inset a squirming bug using tweezers. Julio gained weight and regained enough of his health that he actually went into heat. We learned that chameleons have two penises when we discovered that Julio needed surgery to amputate one of his hemi-penises because it was infected. Julio defied the odds again by recovering from that operation and thriving. Unfortunately, Julio developed kidney failure and anemia. We gave him antibiotics multiple times a day but the vet said that we had done everything we could and he had to be euthanized. Julio was a popular school pet - the evening caretaker used to take Julio out of his cage to ride on his shoulder while he did his cleaning duties. My colleague and I made some special visits to each class at school. We read age-appropriate books like "The Tenth Good Thing About Barney" and "What To Do When A Pet Dies" and gave students time to ask questions and mourn in their own way. The children wrote their farewell wishes to Julio on chart paper and we took these with us when we took him in to be put down.
RIP Orville

Unlike Julio, Orville's death was sudden and unexpected, but these moments still provide an opportunity for us to talk with our students (or our own children) about tough issues that are a natural part of life. Lessons on fractions or mapping will be forgotten but spending time with other living things will not. When my students were interviewed for a study about school libraries, some of them mentioned that their favourite part of the library was seeing Julio & Fudge. At my Superconference workshop, I plan on going into detail about the benefits and research - however, today's post was more about retelling some stories about some of the animal companions with whom I've shared my library (and home) space. 

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