Sometimes, people send me links to articles because they think I’d be interested in them. Sometimes, they do it to see what kind of response they can evoke. I’m not sure which one this was:

I was directed by a couple of people to a recent post of PLOS’s blog about snakes in classrooms. (I don’t really know why a scientific journal organization has a blog to which people who aren’t experts in a given field can submit posts. I would have thought a PLOS blog would relate to PLOS papers, but what do I know.)

I’m sure many people would agree with the sentiments in this blog, but (surprise, surprise), I don’t. It’s not that I’m anti-reptile, anti-pet-in-classroom, or think that the writer is clueless. Rather, he seems to be a passionate and well-meaning educator who just doesn’t see the issues with reptiles in classrooms. I’ve seen the issues and have my take on some of his points (in italics) below.

In this post I hope to give other educators a good foundation for keeping snakes in their classroom. A classroom pet is always a good way to teach responsibility. Administrators love any outside-the-box methods of teaching. Let them know students will be using this animal not just to learn science, but to learn important life skills like responsibility and compassion.

  • True, but it has to be logical and safe. It also has to be educational. Animals can be used in classrooms for educational purposes, but they can also be distracting. The practice can be questionable from an animal welfare standpoint (especially for nocturnal species). They can be associated with disease. Reptiles are the leaders in that class, and reptile-associated salmonellosis has occurred from classroom snakes and other reptiles. Widespread Salmonella contamination of feeder rodents adds an extra level of concern.
  • I also doubt administrators like outside-the-box ideas that pose a health risk to students (and therefore liability).

Your administrator may bring up questions about health risks. Salmonella is often associated with pet reptiles. This can be a bit misleading. Most animals, including pets like hamsters and guinea pigs can carry salmonella, but because turtles are wild caught, and often live in terrariums there is a better chance of salmonella living on their shell.

  • No…(multiple no’s actually). While most animals can carry Salmonella, the prevalence of Salmonella shedding by pet mammals is very low. The rate of Salmonella shedding by captive reptiles is, in contrast, very high. Studies looking at snakes over time have shown that virtually all captive snakes are shedding Salmonella.
  • It’s not just wild caught turtles that are the issue. Captive turtles are also a big concern (the bigger concern, actually).

Most snakes are kept in the same cage setup as hamsters and have little risk of ever having salmonella on their skin.

  • Not a chance. Most do. As mentioned above, studies have shown high (to ubiquitous) carriage of Salmonella by snakes.

I have been handling snakes for 25 years and admittedly have poor hand washing skills and have never had an issue.

  • That’s similar to saying “Gee officer, I drive drunk all the time and I’ve never killed anyone, so you have to let me go.” Yeah, that’s an extreme analogy but you hopefully get the point. Reptile contact causes thousands of cases of salmonellosis in people every year. There might be no infections in this classroom over the next ten years – or a child could die next week. It’s more likely that the former will happen, the the latter is possible.

I do keep multiple bottles of hand sanitizer in the classroom and make sure the students properly sanitize after handling and/or cleaning.

  • That’s great. It’s an important risk reduction tool, but it’s not perfect and doesn’t compensate for the risk.

I would wager students are more likely to salmonella in the lunch line than they are from snakes in a classroom.

  • I doubt it. Even if it was true, eating is a required event. Having a snake in the classroom is not.

Once bitten, the students lose most of their fear and wear it as a badge of honor.

  • Multiple issues with this one…

Some issues are often overlooked:

  • Do teachers always know if they have any high-risk (immunocompromised) kids in the class?
  • Do teachers always know if there will be any high-risk kids visiting the class?
  • What if a student is very afraid of snakes? How is that managed? (Is it managed? Might a child be afraid to say anything and instead work in a very stressful situation in silence?)
  • Are students eating in the same area as the snake (a high risk activity to be sure)?

Here’s my standard disclaimer: I actually like reptiles. Now that our kids are beyond the high-risk ages, Heather would be the main barrier to a request from them for a reptile, not me. However, while I like reptiles, I don’t like them in all situations. When the Salmonella risk can’t be contained and assurances can’t be made that only low-risk people will be exposed, reptiles shouldn’t be kept around. A classroom is a perfect example of just such a situation.

More information about Salmonella and safe management of different pets can be found on the Worms & Germs Resources – Pets page.