Gerbils on their first day of work in a second grade classroom, courtesy of Burlington Science Center.

Gerbils on their first day of work in a second grade classroom, courtesy of Burlington Science Center.

Now that we’re all back to school, does your or your child’s classroom feel a little empty? Almost like it’s missing a tiny, fuzzy, wiggle-nosed something? Like, say, a gerbil?

My first gerbils, Napoleon and Perkins, were biology class pets that I doted on until I graduated, when my teacher gave me Napoleon – by then elderly, single, and my constant companion – to live out his twilight months. Once he died, I found I couldn’t go back to a gerbil-free life, and ten years later, here I am. While most students aren’t going to find a lifelong passion just from having gerbils in the classroom the way I did, gerbils are fantastic companions for students. I talked to Wendy Pavlicek, animal curator at the Burlington Science Center, about why she’s been bringing gerbils to classrooms for over 15 years.

How did you first get gerbils bring gerbils into the classroom?
I took over as the animal curator for the Burlington Science Center in August of 2000. The Science Center’s previous life science specialist had gerbils in the classrooms already and I expanded the collection when I was in touch with Shawsheen River Gerbils.

What is your current gerbil setup?
We have 6-8 classrooms that keep gerbils as all year pets, and we have 5 tanks of rotating gerbils that visit classrooms for 2-3 weeks at a time and then come back to the science center.

What’s special about gerbils that’s kept you adopting them for so many years?
Gerbils are a great small mammal to educate children and adults (our parents love them as well) about responsibility of having a pet and respect for all animals. Gerbils can be very active and exhibit a wide variety of behaviors for students to observe. For younger students, they are active enough that they can still enjoy them by touching them, where the older students can enjoy picking them up. Gerbils are relatively easily maintained with proper research and reading and don’t require a huge amount of space. We enjoy making enrichment toys and “decorating” their home environment. The appropriate supplies can be easily purchased for them and relatively inexpensive to keep. And we think they’re adorable!

What’s the best experience you’ve had with classroom gerbils? The worst?
I’ve had students that struggle with engaging in school and participation. By allowing the student to be the “gerbil care specialist” it gave them a sense of meaning and purpose. It helped engage them with social and emotional skills. We haven’t really had a worst experience, except they don’t live as long as we hope sometimes.

What’s the best way to make sure gerbils and kids interact safely, so there’s minimal problems like biting or escape attempts?
Have rules and guidelines. There should be only 2 students at the tank handling and touching the gerbils at a time. Make sure students use soft voices are gentle with the gerbils. They should touch only on the gerbil’s back, not their face, and especially no grabbing the tail. Don’t squeeze a gerbil – let it move! The best way to do that is use a run-around ball with the lid taped to prevent an accidental escape.  When gerbils go home with families for weekends or vacations, make a packet, care sheet, and/or video to go home with the gerbils with care guidelines.

What tips or advice would you give teachers who were considering gerbils as classroom pets?
DO YOUR RESEARCH and be sure to check for any students who have allergies to fur and anything that may be in the gerbil food.

(Editor’s note: Don’t know where to start on research? Check out the American Gerbil Society’s Care Handbook.)

Be sure to have a letter to send home to families to care for the gerbils during weekends or school vacations and consider the pets they might already have at home. Be sure to have a secure cage so no escapes and check on your gerbils at least once every day. Have good storage bins and space for storing supplies. And most of all, teach your students to treat your class gerbils like we should treat each other – with love, care and respect.