Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Animal lovers cry fowl over lessons

Hatching projects bad for chicks and students, opponents say

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J. Adam Fenster⁄The Gazette
Branca and two other chicks were dropped off at Star Gazing Farm in Boyds after being hatched as part of a kindergarten science project. Only Branca, with farm owner Anne Shroeder, has survived.
When Branca and her feathered peers arrived at Star Gazing Farm in Boyds late last month, they were in bad shape. The chicks, just a few weeks old after being hatched in a kindergarten classroom, were malnourished and dehydrated, and only Branca survived the week.

The three birds — raised as part of a science project at Glen Haven Elementary School in Wheaton — were dehydrated and malnourished, and one had rickets, said farm owner Anne Shroeder, who takes in many abused and neglected animals at the nonprofit sanctuary.

But Shroeder and others who operate sanctuaries say the projects send the wrong message to children.

‘‘It teaches them that animals are disposable. We look at them for a couple days and get rid of them,” said Terry Cummings, an owner of Poplar Spring Animal Sanctuary in Poolesville. ‘‘ ... It’s a nightmare for sanctuaries because we get all these calls from people who have all these chicks and don’t know what to do with them.”

Hatching projects are an option in the kindergarten science curriculum in Montgomery County Public Schools, said spokeswoman Kate Harrison. Students learn about the life cycle by incubating and hatching eggs, she said.

Harrison could not say how many county schools incubate eggs. According to the MCPS science safety manual, eggs can only be incubated if a permanent home is found for the chicks.

But apparently there were no plans for the Glen Haven chicks.

Camilo Diaz of Silver Spring — a long-term substitute teacher at Glen Haven — took the chicks home because the teacher whose class raised the birds didn’t know what to do with them at the end of the school year, Diaz’s wife, Twaina Jones, said last week.

The couple kept the birds for a few days before finding them placement at Star Gazing Farm, she said. Diaz could not be reached for comment.

When the chicks arrived at the farm, they were in serious condition. One didn’t last through the day, and another succumbed several days later, Shroeder said.

But Harrison noted it is possible the chicks developed problems after they left Glen Haven.

‘‘We don’t know if they left the school in that condition,” she said.

Joanne Smith, principal of Glen Haven, said Tuesday that she has not received any complaints about the school’s hatching project in the six years it has been conducted at the school. The school’s six kindergarten classes participated in the project.

She did not know what happens to the chicks at the end of the school year, and could not reach the teacher responsible for the chicks that ended up at Star Gazing Farm, Smith said.

Cinthia Fabretti, the veterinarian who gave the chicks a check-up at Star Gazing Farm, said that birds are fragile and require delicate care.

‘‘It’s not easy to raise any bird,” Fabretti said Monday. ‘‘... I would not recommend [hatching projects] for the sake of the animal, also for the sake of health concerns” for people.

Birds have high metabolisms and need constant food and water and lots of sunlight, she said. Eggs, which are permeable and can be harmed by dirty or oily hands, should be kept at a certain temperature and humidity level and must be turned regularly to prevent deformities, she said.

The three chicks from Glen Haven may have suffered developmental problems, as they had difficulty standing and walking when they arrived at the farm, Shroeder said. The chicks were poorly socialized due to the absence of their mother, she said.

‘‘The mother teaches them everything,” Shroeder said.

Hatching projects can be detrimental to students as well as chicks, according to opponents.

The Seattle school system banned the projects in 1999 after analysis revealed that almost all chicks hatched at schools were infected with E. coli and salmonella, according to information posted on the Web site for the Humane Society of Missouri.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines for animals in school settings, children under 5 should not be in contact with chicks.

At Star Gazing Farm, Branca, the sole remaining chick, has bounced back and is now spending her days exploring the outdoors, Shroeder said.

‘‘She still looks terrible, but she’s doing great,” Shroeder said.

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