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Pet Projects

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By Beth Waltman

A living, breathing science project probably lives in your house right now: your family pet! Since science is all about observing, hypothesizing, and drawing conclusions, pets make the perfect specimens for health or behavioral studies. Even a dog or cat can be observed for the effect of play, exercise, training and teaching attempts. This is the point where Adam's job of naming the animals and presiding over creation coincides with man's attempts to understand the natural world through science. We have the opportunity to instill in our children nurturing respect for our God-given world. Our pets often benefit from the increased attention, also!

We used all these arguments and more to persuade my husband that an Australian bearded dragon would provide, not just one more mouth to feed, but a fascinating family project. My son Samuel fell in love with this foot-long reptile via internet research. He spent months choosing a lizard that had a reputation for friendliness and ease of care. We insisted that he learn all about the special feeding and habitat requirements before we stepped into a pet store.

If your child desires a pet to observe, you might want to set parameters. Ask your child:

1. How long are you interested in caring for this pet?

2. Are you willing to clean up after it?

3. What is the cost of care and feeding? Are the children willing to contribute to veterinarian bills if the animal gets sick?

4. What do you hope to learn from this pet?

The first fair question is the life span of the animal. We now have a Florida soft-shell turtle with a life expectancy of fifty years! Naturally, Samuel must make future plans to release it into the wild once it reaches the size of a dinner plate. His lizard will live 12-15 years if it remains in normal good health.

This means that I'll be caring for a bearded dragon when my son is in college! Since I had this information before he purchased Draco, I'm mentally prepared to take over the zookeeping. If your family isn't ready for a commitment of this scope, consider rodents, which make a more economical choice and live only 2 to 3 years. Polywogs or tadpoles take only a month or two to complete their fascinating cycle from egg to frog form. Slugs and snails can be collected briefly, housed in a coffee can and fed kitchen scraps. Then they can be released.

Another consideration in choosing a pet is maintenance and clean-up. If your

family races to soccer games, piano lessons, and church activities, a new puppy may be neglected. A tank of tropical fish may fit more into your time availability. Part of the student learning experience must be that the children share in the clean-up. A cute, cuddly kitten requires a clean litter box! Incorporate the idea that responsibility for an animal's physical and emotional well-being accompanies the joy of pet ownership.

Expense is a factor in choosing pets. Exotic lizards and turtles require special lighting for health and warmth. Without the appropriate UV rays, their bodies don't produce enough calcium, resulting in skeletal deformity. Tank size also affects growth, health, and contentment. I recommend that students keep notebooks charting how their animals seem to feel with each change in habitat. Samuel observes that every time he moves the rocks and limbs around in Draco's tank, the lizard perks up and appears more alert.

Food for exotic pets can require a maintenance plan. We order 1000 live crickets at a time and house them in vented plastic containers for Samuel's lizard. The insects require special feeding in order to provide essential nutrients for Draco. We get to observe the whole food chain and speculate on ramifications of disruption of the chain in the wild. Thus, we absorb a lot of scientific facts while considering the health of a bearded dragon. The expense is much greater than an hour spent watching the Animal Planet on television. But, the impact on my son is beyond estimation.

Before purchasing a pet, consider which veterinarian you will use and probable health or illness of the breed of animal. Lethargy is always a sign of poor health. Poor appetite is another noteworthy symptom. Any pet deserves appropriate veterinarian treatment if illness arises. Part of our caretaker role in God's world is respect for living creatures. Pets are not inanimate toys for our amusement. We learn from them, love them, and enjoy them, but they are not toys. If they become ill, they shouldn't be thoughtlessly disposed of and replaced. Thus, continuing care must be figured into the projected cost of a pet. Helping to pay for an animal causes a child to personally commit to its care.

When our lizard seemed sick, several people suggested that we simply release it and go get another one. Samuel felt personal responsibility for its well-being. After research and a trip to the veterinarian, we discovered that it had some easily eradicated parasites. Draco continued with bizarre scratching and digging behavior, and subsequently laid 17 eggs! Now, we recognize Draco's cycles and call the dragon "she" instead of "he." Samuel still won't allow us to rename her Dracarina.

Unit projects spring naturally from raising pets. Our children have written comparison/contrast papers about their animals. They've composed passionate prose about how much they have loved slugs in spite of public opinion. Samuel has charted food intake at a time when his dragon's appetite was poor, bringing math into the equation. Both Krystal and Samuel spend endless hours on the internet and in the library researching optimum diet and exercise for our pets. We even found a recipe for home-made collie chow and dog treat biscuits! Thus, although our pets are a beloved part of the family, they've taught us many lessons in English, math, and science.

Copyright ©  2001 Eclectic Homeschool Association

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