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CA Press:Snake in the class takes bite

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Posted by desiree on December 05, 2002 at 23:41:54:

Posted on Thu, Dec. 05, 2002

Snake in the class takes bite

In Eric Bull's science class, there's a Shortcake that bites.

Shortcake, a 3-foot boa constrictor, nipped a student who was taking him out of his cage at Marina's Los Arboles Middle School on Monday. Fortunately for the student, her parents and the school's insurance company, boa constrictors are not poisonous, and their bites are generally akin to a cat's scratch.

Besides Shortcake, Bull keeps five other non-poisonous snakes in the classroom, as well as live mice and rats to feed them. He uses the snakes to teach students to respect all living things. Nearly every day at lunchtime, he holds classes to teach students how to handle the snakes.

At lunch Monday, Shortcake bit one of the students, Bull said. The student might have scared the snake while taking it out of the cage, Bull said. The girl, who the school would not identify out of privacy concerns, didn't need any medical attention beyond washing the wound and putting on a bandage.

"The snakes can bite, but their teeth are more like a fish's teeth," Bull said. "They grab, and hold on, but don't chew or tear. All animals can bite - you have to be respectful to animals."

Bull said the girl is still eager to handle the animals. Fighting fear of snakes is another reason he keeps them in the class.

"It's always been a nice thing to have, to try to make the kids not as afraid of critters as their parents are," he said. "More adults are afraid of snakes then the kids are."

Ironically, Bull used to fear snakes. But in 1985, Bull's first year teaching, an acquaintance gave him a boa constrictor for his classroom. The snake, named Strawberry, wouldn't eat.

Bull found out Strawberry had a disease called mouth rot, which is similar to athletes' foot, but in a snake's mouth. To cure his new pet, Bull would have to give the snake two injections a day and apply a salve to the inside of the snake's mouth.

"Here I am with an animal I don't trust, and I'm poking it twice a day and putting this stuff in its face," said Bull. "It never bit me."

Strawberry survived the mouth rot, but died last year. Bull replaced Strawberry with Shortcake.

After he got Strawberry, people kept giving Bull their unwanted snakes. The class's collection includes two king snakes, a racer snake, a garter snake and a gopher snake.

Bull said the snakes are popular with students, and go home with his students over holidays.

While Bull's bevy of serpents seems to be the exception, most local school districts do not have a formal policy on animals in the classroom.

"That's something below a district policy," said Daniel Callahan, superintendent of the Monterey Peninsula Unified School District, which includes Los Arboles. "We obviously don't allow people to bring in pet tigers."

Callahan said it is up to school principals to exercise good judgment.

Jesse Barajas, superintendent at the Alisal Union School District, said the district does not have a formal policy, but that he imagines animals in the classroom could carry risks that a district should minimize.

The Salinas City Elementary School District does have a list of guidelines dealing with animals that allows most non-poisonous animals in school with a principal's approval.

"It's mostly common sense," said Superintendent Robert Slaby. "In 450 classrooms, I'm sure there are gerbils and hamsters. I don't know of anything poisonous, or any snakes."

Animals are only allowed for observation in appropriate life science classes at the Salinas Union High School District, said Roger Antone, the district's associate superintendent for instructional services.


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