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Tiny pets create learning opportunities at NMA

Photo by Rebecca Long

Photo by Rebecca Long

By Diane Glidewell

dglidewell@myjpa.com

On Tuesday, April 27 Principal Keith Benton saw someone leave something in front of North Mulberry Academy and drive away. When he checked outside he found a cage containing two adult gerbils, eight newborn babies, and a bag of food. Language Arts Teacher Jennifer Grover took custody of the abandoned family and a myriad of possibilities for incorporating the little animals into her students' curriculum began to come to mind.

The students immediately used on-line resources to learn the type of gerbils, whether they should handle the babies, what they should feed the new classroom residents, and what kind of environment they should create for them.

They learned their family is a common type of gerbil known as Mongolian or Jirts. Mom and Dad were named "Daisy" and "Roscoe." The class research determined the babies were not more than a day old; they learned that handling them before they had fur wasn't recommended. They began to show fur on day five. One student could have easily held all eight of the tiny babies in one hand when they first arrived. The fragile little animals have already doubled in size but still weigh only a few ounces. One baby is albino.

Research taught that this type of gerbil was a desert dweller which originated in Mongolia and first became popular as a children's pet in France. True to its desert origins, it requires little water. Its mouth is too tiny to bite a human. It is also an easy pet to keep because it requires little space and has little odor, needing only occasional changes of bedding.

Students have studied the gerbil developmental cycle, habitat, and diet. They learned the female can conceive again just four hours after giving birth. With a 30-day gestation period, they may be observing another litter of pups at the end of May.

Students are keeping a daily journal about the gerbils and have written papers from the perspective of the adults and of the pups. If they want to keep one of the pets, they must write a paper on how they will care for it and why they are responsible enough to do so.

The classes had made bird feeders to place outside their windows earlier in the year and have also been observing the development of baby birds. The gerbils provided more opportunities for interaction.

Students enjoy observing female Daisy rapidly move across the floor in a gerbil ball. Male Roscoe seems unable to figure out how to make the gerbil ball move. Those observations could provide the basis for an interesting paper.

"It has been a great opportunity for learning," said Grover.