This first-grade classroom at Lenox Elementary School in Baldwin is home to pets that include a gecko, salamander — and a hedgehog that likes to snack on worms. NewsdayTV's Steve Langford reports. Credit: Newsday/Howard Schnapp

Talk about teacher's pets. 

Five animals reside in the second-floor classroom of teacher Renee MacDermott at Lenox School in Baldwin. There's an axolotl (a type of salamander) named Pearl, a leopard gecko named Oreo, a hamster named Rocky, a fish named Onyx and Ruby the hedgehog, who joined the first-grade class last spring.

"It's really a whole immersive experience for the children," MacDermott said.

Educators in school districts across Long Island have incorporated pets into the daily curriculum, saying that the presence of an animal helps children learn the science behind their behavior, but also addresses a student's social and emotional needs. Several schools have added therapy dog visits to classrooms and some have constructed indoor and outdoor nature centers on campus. There's quite a variety of species too, including ducks, lizards, rabbits and turtles who have become part of the educational experience.

Meet JD

3-year-old Sheepadoodle

Location: Visits children in the Longwood district

Unusual or fun trait: Understands commands in German; loves to chase bubbles.

What students can learn: JD makes the students feel at ease when they read to him. They love to snuggle up to him and share their favorite book. 

Who cares for it: His owner is retired Longwood Kindergarten teacher Jerri Cotter.

Credit: John Roca

Some children's libraries have added animals as part of their youth programs.

The Middle Country library in Centereach hosts two guinea pigs names Ziggy and Stardust. The library youth services department offers guinea pig story times, during which participants learn all about guinea pigs and have a chance to interact with them.

“People definitely make it a point to greet and say goodbye to them when they visit the library," said youth services librarian Kristin Shankles. 

"Seems like [guinea pigs] give the little ones a sense of routine and transition when they come to the library."

Meet Stardust and Ziggy

1-year-old Guinea pigs

Location: Middle Country Public Library

Unusual or fun trait: Stardust leaps and bounces from the top of his house to his hay feeder, while Ziggy hides out in his hut as to not get in the way of his buddy. Both are rescues.

How does this pet help students learn: Help youngsters learn social and emotional behaviors. Through special story times, patrons learn about Guinea pigs and can interact with them.

Who cares for them: Library staff members although visitors sometimes can feed them treats.

Credit: Barry Sloan

According to the Pet Care Trust, a nonprofit, private foundation which offers grants for educators to sponsor pets in classrooms nationwide, interest in having animals in schools has been on the rise. Since 2010, the group has issued roughly 230,000 grants nationwide — including 6,000 in New York — and grants were up more than 36% in the 2022-23 school year over the prior year.

They reported that the most popular classroom pets are fish, followed by bearded dragons.

The group reported that classroom pets offer a variety of ways to help children, including teaching them empathy, increasing student engagement, improving attendance and reducing anxiety.

Meet Harry Styles

5-month-old Angora Bunny

Location: Sayville Elementary School

Unusual or fun trait: Can be put into a trance when laid on its back.

What students can learn: Special education teacher Laurin Manning says “a fluffy, gentle rabbit really triggers the senses." Multi-sensory lessons (incorporating touch, sight, smell) can help children learn and is "ideal for students with autism," she added.

Who cares for it?: Lives with ESBOCES teacher Lisa Konnerth.

Credit: Tom Lambui

In Baldwin, they are seeing the results firsthand.

The five animals in the classroom are all part of daily lessons. The young students learn about animal behavior, their habitats and their diet — especially since the class includes homegrown red worms and meal worms as food. For example, the fish is part of an aquaponic system. Waste from the fish is pumped into the roots of plants on top of the tank. The roots of the plants help clean the water that filters back into the tank.

Ruby the hedgehog is the newest addition. Students take turns bringing in snacks for her and prepping them. Sometimes, she is placed in a playpen that the children sit around and observe firsthand as the teacher feeds her mealworms.

Meet Ruby

7-month-old African Pygmy Hedgehog

Location: Lenox School, Baldwin

Unusual or fun trait: Ruby likes to take baths to clean her quills and skin.

What students can learn: They observe her different behaviors based on her emotions and then relate that to their own feelings and behaviors. Also, helps teach science concepts like nocturnal behaviors, animals' diets and how they defend themselves from predators.

Who cares for it: School staff but students provide special treats on their assigned day. The whole class helps give Ruby a bubble bath.

Credit: Howard Schnapp

There's a social and emotional component to having the animals in the classroom. Sometimes Ruby is slipped into a little pouch that a student wears to sit quietly and read to her, or she rolls around the floor in a plastic ball.

"We do a lot of talking about how the hedgehog does a lot to communicate with us, and show us how it's feeling. It will curl up into a ball to protect itself. And then we talk as a class about how sometimes we don't communicate that same way, but we will often kind of go within ourselves when we're feeling sad, or when we're feeling threatened, that we will sort of curl up," MacDermott said. 

In the Half Hollow Hills district in Suffolk County, a blue-tongued skink named Bluey lives in the classroom of Melissa Watkins at Candlewood Middle School. 

"I got Bluey when I was teaching life science two years ago, " Watkins said. "Having a living creature just felt right. ... It's also about equity. Not everyone has a pet at home and they are exposed to something different every day and it gives them that sense of excitement."

Meet Bluey

3-year-old Northern blue-tongued skink

Location: Classroom at Candlewood Middle School, Half Hollow Hills district

Fun trait: Likes to bury himself completely so he can't be found or hide under his water bowl; loves bananas, strawberries and worms.

What students can learn: The students love him. They made Bluey the class mascot, wrote an anthem about him and sang it to him. 

Credit: Barry Sloan

"There is just something different about coming to this room that has a pet."

Student Zarif Ahmed, 13, decided to keep a log of Bluey's behavior during class time.

"While we are doing some work I can see what Bluey is doing," he said. "I do like animal behavior. It's really interesting because they don't think like us. It's really fun, too."

Watkins received a grant from the pet group to help with the expense.

In the Levittown district, Northside elementary school recently welcomed a flock of ducks into its landscaped courtyard. It's a space where children can go to read, learn about the environment and watch the five ducks that now reside there.

The school started with two ducks — Tater and Tot — and recently added three more. Some come from a local preschool that hatched eggs. The flock is tended by Principal Frank Mortillaro, whose wife has taken to calling him "Farmer Frank."

Meet Five-Tater, Tot, Hash Brown, Bacon, and Egg

Four pekin ducks and one magpie, aged 5-months to 1-year-old

Location: Northside Elementary, Levittown

Unusual trait: They are very social. They want to talk to the kids. They come to the gate. It's very funny. It's definitely cute, the principal said.

What students can learn: The kids "love" the ducks and the habitat offers a space for students to "relax a little bit and ... organize their thoughts."

Who cares for them: The flock is tended by Principal Frank Mortillaro, whose wife has taken to calling him "Farmer Frank."

Credit: Debbie Egan-Chin

The landscaped space offers a serene setting with a small waterfall and a greenhouse. The ducks live behind a fence, but they come up to the kids often. 

"They don't ask for anything other than they want to quack at you, " he said. "It is a space for [children] to take their time, relax a little bit and get their head together and organize their thoughts"

As for the ducks, "The kids absolutely love them," he said.

What to Know

  • Educators in school districts across Long Island have incorporated pets into the daily curriculum, saying that the presence of an animal helps children learn the science behind their behavior but also addresses a student's social and emotional needs.
  • Several schools have added therapy dog visits to classrooms and some have constructed indoor and outdoor nature centers on campus.
  • Interest in having animals in schools has been on the rise, according to the Pet Care Trust, a nonprofit, private foundation which offers grants for educators to sponsor pets in classrooms nationwide.

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