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Finding summer homes for the teachers' pets


The schools are out, the kids are in camp and the teachers are recovering - but what about the class pets?

Those gerbils, bunnies, frogs, turtles, parakeets and newts - yes, newts - that live in the classroom during the school year can present a problem for their keepers, who have their own summer plans that don't necessarily involve their furry or feathered friends.

Sally Loercher, who teaches the pre-first class at St. James Academy in Monkton, jumps at the first students who show up with parental permission slips authorizing them to take the class gerbils home for the summer.

This year, however, finding a summer home wasn't an issue: The rodents didn't make it to the end of school.

"Gerbils only last about two or three years," she says, a life span that, sadly, can end during the summer.

"One year, we had both die over the summer. In each case, the family felt so guilty that they replaced them," Loercher said. "I always tell people that it's not their fault. Teachers always tell families not to worry about replacing the animals."

As public sensitivity to pet allergies has increased, many schools have limited the number of animals they keep in the classroom. But the pets that remain face a variety of fates come summer break: Some just go home with the teacher, others remain at schools where custodians offer to look after them. Some even get to go to camp.

Pudge the rabbit and Molly the box turtle spent the academic year helping Kathy Bacon teach sixth- and seventh-grade science classes at Roland Park Elementary/Middle School. Now all three head to Beth Tfiloh's camp in Reisterstown, where Bacon is an instructor, before returning to school in the fall.

"The camp has a nature department that helps kids learn about animals and about how to take care of them," she says. "These animals are ... used to human contact and noise, and that's why they work so well for the nature center."

More commonly, though, classroom pets are simply packed up and sent home with whichever child has managed to convince his or her parents that a gerbil would be a fine houseguest that even the family dogs will love.

That was how Toni Killefer of Pikesville, a woman who is already taking care of three children and three dogs, managed to make "one of those spur-of-the-moment decisions" and agreed to take in Rocky, the resident gerbil of her daughter Ellen's second-grade classroom at McDonogh School.

"Rocky's easy," Killefer says. "He stays in his cage. I think he's a little bit on the older side, as far as gerbils go, and he wasn't interested in having a wheel. But we can put him into the middle of his ball, and he can roll around on the floor as long as the dogs are outside."

Ellen feeds and changes his water ever day, while her mother helps change his bedding once a week.

For some teachers, it's not finding one student who will agree to take home the class pet, it's picking just one student among the many who want the honor.

"I used to have a drawing of names from children who gave me permission slips, but it's very disappointing for those who don't get picked," says Diana Latane, who teaches kindergarten at Cranberry Station Elementary in Westminster. "So I started putting out e-mails to my co-workers to see if any of them had a child who wanted to 'hamster-sit' over the summer."

And sometimes the pet problems have a way of multiplying, as they did with two bunnies given to a McDonogh science class.

The story began last summer when Aida Gamerman brought two rabbits, Penelope and Leo, into her home. Having enjoyed raising kittens as a child, she wanted to teach her daughter Lina about taking care of animals and the miracle of birth.

As expected, Penelope and Leo produced offspring - five of them. That September, the Gamermans donated DJ and Brownie, bunnies they thought were both male, to Lina's class at McDonogh School.

"Four weeks later, we got a panicked call from the teacher," Aida Gamerman says. "DJ and Brownie had had babies. But there was also a lot of excitement among the children."

So much, in fact, that school techies rigged up a "Bunny Cam" so that the kids could watch the rabbits on their home computers.

Amid all the euphoria, someone forgot to separate DJ and Brownie in a timely fashion. Four weeks later, there was another litter. By Christmas, there were 13 new bunnies, including one named Dudley.

Teachers took some, students took some, and at the end of the school year, the Gamermans transported little Dudley back to his ancestral home. "Dudley was really nervous at first," says 10-year-old Lina Gamerman. "But he fit in just right."

Meanwhile, Dudley's older sibling, Buster, is bonding with the Clime family of Ellicott City.

Brooke and Katie Clime, who have just completed the second and third grades at McDonogh, fell in love with Buster when he was living in the classroom of second-grade teacher Kate Hailstone and they asked if he could visit over the summer. After meeting him, their mother, Aimee Clime, agreed.

"I think he's pretty cute," she says. "The girls are taking care of him, and I'm following up to make sure they've done what they should. One thing I think surprised them was how quickly his cage gets dirty. I said, 'That's what bunnies do, girls - one of two things.'"

Buster will stay with the Climes until they go to the beach at the end of July. Then he'll be shipped out to stay with Kate Hailstone at her home in Ednor Gardens, a place he knows well from various overnights during the school year.

It's the perfect summer retreat, a place where Buster can be whomever he, or she, wants.

"We kept the name Buster even after we found out she's a girl," Hailstone acknowledges. "She has a lovely disposition, loves company and is terribly spoiled by everyone, me included."

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