A Rabbit in the Classroom – What are they really teaching the kids?
Once you live with a rabbit, you realize just how far off the mark are the generally accepted notions of them.Why would anyone consign these sensitive, subtle creatures to life in a classroom?. Even in those rare situations where (unlike the animals described below) the rabbits’ short-term physical requirements are met, social, emotional, and psychological needs are impossible to provide for. Nor are the students coming away with the intended lessons. They may hear about “respect and responsibility,” but they see a rabbit who is being used and who in most cases is disposed of when her usefulness ends. Doc and Winnie were of the few lucky ones. Hopefully their story will inspire others to act as Carol McCall did.
I have rescued two rabbits and a guinea pig from the high school where I teach. They were not dramatic interventions; they were more like gradual adoptions.
The first was Doc, a big, handsome red rabbit. The biology teacher had gotten him from a woman who was stuck with him when his first family (her relatives) moved out of town. With the unexamined notion that classrooms are an ideal habitat for bunnies, she couldn’t wait to foist him off on the teacher.
|“With the unexamined notion that classrooms are an ideal habitat for bunnies, she couldn’t wait to foist him off on the teacher.”|
My colleague, equally ignorant about rabbit behavior, thought Doc would hop around the classroom while she taught. (Even if he had performed according to her expectations, I can’t see how that would have helped students to concentrate.) He arrived in a wire dog-crate, which she lined with newspapers. She gave him water and food in plastic bowls. As soon as he hopped onto the linoleum lab floor, he slipped and hit his chin. After that brief experience, he refused to come out of the crate. By the end of the day, when I first saw him, he was sitting on wet newspapers, with pellets and feces scattered all over the crate. From then on he retreated into the furthest corner of his sorry prison. Since the crate didn’t open from the top, it was impossible to reach him without crawling in there with him. So he sat all alone in his crate in a corner of the lab, surrounded by big black laboratory tables and the din of classes in progress.
I kept visiting, making suggestions. She bought a water bottle. She switched to a heavy glass food dish. After I learned that he was going to be left all alone over the weekend, I asked if I might take him home with me. Since she had cats and kids at home, and no time to spend letting the cats and rabbit get used to one another, she readily accepted my offer. After taking him home each weekend, it was natural to have Doc spend Thanksgiving with us. Although I gave him a bath and cut his extremely long nails when I had him at my home, his fur was soon wet and matted when he got back to his crate in school.
Finally the biology teacher had a week-long conference to attend. She knew the substitute teacher would not take care of Doc, and the students had lost interest in him. He just sat in the corner all the time, on newspaper wet with urine, so they decided this was a dumb bunny, not worthy of their attention. Once again, Doc came to our home, this time for nine days. He began to get used to living with me and my two rabbits. On Monday morning when the biology teacher returned, she asked me if I would consider keeping Doc permanently. So it was settled.
I bought him a 30×36-inch cage, with a big cat litterbox. I put a thick cotton bathmat on the wire floor so Doc would have a choice of lying on wire, in the litterbox, or on the soft mat. He got fresh hay and a variety of greens. But more importantly to him, he got freedom. Over a few weeks’ time, Doc went from a shy rabbit, to a lovable, curious, determined guy. He chewed my baseboards, got into the shoeboxes in my closet, and ran the length of the apartment. He even hurled his big red self high up into the air in joyous bunny leaps. If only the students could see him now, I thought, they just might learn an important lesson about respect for other living beings. Doc wasn’t “dumb”; he’d been surrounded by ignorant humans.
The next time I rescued animals from a school situation also came from a biology class. In this instance the teacher had been presented with a rabbit and a guinea pig by a fellow teacher whose nephews no longer wanted them. (The kids had already put out one of the guinea pig’s eyes.)
Like Doc’s former caretaker, this biology teacher knew very little about rabbits. I soon stopped by and lent her several books, including House Rabbit Handbook. Weeks later, when we were talking about the animals’ behavior, it was clear to me that she had not read any of the books. Once again, the rabbit was seldom out of his cage. The teacher did bring in some greens, mostly iceberg lettuce. This time I swore I would not get involved. I had my own work to do. So I only visited when I was in that part of the building.
A month passed. One day a student came to my classroom door. He asked if I was the teacher who liked animals. I cautiously answered “Yes.” He told me that the rabbit in his biology class wasn’t eating. I asked more questions. He was in charge of feeding the rabbit, and he had noticed that the pellets were untouched, and the water level in the bottle had not gone down. When he told the teacher, she said she’d take care of it, but now three days had passed and the rabbit still wasn’t eating or drinking. “Three days?!” I exclaimed. I promised this concerned student that I would be there to see the rabbit right after my next class. He smiled and said, “They told me you would do something.” I don’t know who “they” were, but apparently word had spread about me and my animals.
When I saw the rabbit, he looked awful. His skin had no elasticity, and his eyes were dull. I told the teacher that she had a very sick rabbit who required veterinary care immediately. The teacher replied that she could not afford the time or the money to take him to the hospital, and she didn’t know of a vet anyway. She did not seem terribly upset about the rabbit’s condition. I asked if I could take him to my vet and offered to pay the bill. That was OK with her. I went directly from school to the vet’s office.
He was a severely dehydrated bunny. Also, he was a she. My vet gave her fluids subcutaneously, and within an hour she looked much better.
When we got back to school, I told the biology teacher that the rabbit needed to be given medicine twice a day for two weeks. She replied that she couldn’t see herself administering it. She was afraid the rabbit would scratch or bite her. So I kept the rabbit. She responded beautifully to care and has been with me and the rest of our animal family ever since. As soon as she was back in good health, I had her spayed. I also changed her name from Eddie to Edwina, and then to Winnie.
Of course, I also took home the guinea pig, whom the students thought was too stinky to have in their classroom. With pelleted paper litter, which I change frequently, he no longer has a smelly cage. He loves running round the house, sleeping under a footstool, and drinking from the dog’s dish. (I have a very docile, unaggressive small dog, who licks the rabbits and guinea pig whenever they get within range of her tongue.)
So I am blessed with animal companions whom others considered throwaways. Good for me and, eventually, good for the rabbits and guinea pig. But good for the students? Did they learn anything positive about responsibility and caring? Yes, there were students who cared about Winnie’s welfare; without their intervention, she would not be alive today. But what did the others learn? That animals are here for our use, that their needs are of little importance, and they can be discarded when they become inconvenient. That’s why I think a rabbit in the classroom is not a good idea.
A Better Approach
To safeguard the rabbits’ physical and psychological well-being, and at the same time provide the children with a positive learning experience…being used and who in most cases is disposed of when her usefulness ends. Doc and Winnie were of the few lucky ones. Hopefully their story will inspire others to act as Carol McCall did.
House Rabbit Journal Summer 1997: Volume III, Number 10