Today’s Toronto Star has an article about a reptile club in a Toronto Elementary School. Teacher Jim Karkavitsas runs a session every day that teaches students about a range of reptiles. His menagerie has expanded from one snake five years ago to more than 40 different species in his classroom. Some are loaned out to other classroom’s on request and two lizards now make their home in the school’s main office.

The good

  • Learning about, and interacting with, animals can be very important for kids, especially those who don’t get exposure to animals at home and outside of school. It can teach responsibility and empathy, and be the springboard for a range of educational discussions.
  • The animals are kept in a room adjoining the classroom, so they are relatively contained and all students aren’t forced to be around them (since some kids might be afraid of them). Housing the reptiles in a different room also means students presumably aren’t eating in the same room in which the reptiles are housed.
  • Kids use hand sanitizer before and after contact with reptiles. This is a very important preventive measure for the problems outlined below, but it’s not 100% protective (or usually performed all the time or done properly).
  • Mr. Karkavitsas takes the animals home during the summer. A problem with some classroom pets is people don’t assume ownership for them to take care of them properly when school’s not in session. Similarly, the school’s parent council provides $5000 to cover the cost of keeping the reptiles. Hopefully, that also means that veterinary care would be provided if something happens, which can be a problem in many cases when classroom pets need care but no one has a mandate to arrange or pay for it.

The bad and the ugly

  • Salmonella. That’s the big one. Reptiles are classic sources of Salmonella. You can almost guarantee that more than one of these reptiles are shedding the bacterium. If a reptile is shedding Salmonella in its feces, it will also likely have the bacterium on its skin, in its cage and in any areas where it roams. It also means that anyone touching it (or its environment, or contaminated areas) can pick up Salmonella on their hands, with subsequent transfer into the mouth. This is a high-risk situation since reptiles are a major source of salmonellosis, especially in kids. Reptile-associated salmonellosis does occur in classroooms.
  • Mr. Karkavitsas buys frozen rats to feed the snakes. Frozen rats can also be contaminated with Salmonella, and frozen rats have caused salmonellosis in kids in a school (which was also brought home and spread other family members). There’s also been a large (and likely ongoing) international salmonellosis outbreak associated with frozen rodents. 
  • Standard recommendations are that children less than five years of age (along with pregnant women, elderly individuals and people with compromised immune systems) not have contact with reptiles. This is a grade 5-6 classroom, so the students would be older than this, but I wouldn’t be surprised if younger kids in the school also have contact with the reptiles. Additionally, the immunocompromised group is an issue, since many people have compromised immune systems due to various diseases or treatments. Teachers may not know about all of these and parents may not realize that their high-risk child is having contact with high-risk animals in school. When you can’t be sure that high-risk people won’t have direct or indirect contact, that’s a problem.

The sentiment is great and I applaud the teacher’s efforts to engage kids and teach them about animals, However, it’s a cost/benefit situation and the potential costs (which may be extreme) outweigh the benefits (significant as they may be). While reptiles can be great pets in certain situations, they’re not meant for schools where there are lots of kids, challenges with supervision, difficulty implementing good infection control practices and potentially individuals at high risk for infection.