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Wild classroom

Joel Swanson's classroom is a zoo. While the middle school science teacher delivers a lesson on reptiles, an albino ferret curls up on a notebook. Doves coo in chorus. A chinchilla darts among the table legs. The activity doesn't bother seventh-g...

Joel Swanson's classroom is a zoo.

While the middle school science teacher delivers a lesson on reptiles, an albino ferret curls up on a notebook. Doves coo in chorus. A chinchilla darts among the table legs.

The activity doesn't bother seventh-grade life science students at Fargo's Oak Grove Lutheran School. In fact, the commotion is as much a part of their class as the textbooks.

More than 55 critters reside in Swanson's classroom during the school year. From Indian walking sticks to a 75-pound Burmese python named George, the animals are living lessons for Swanson's students.

"If you're going to learn about animals in class, why not have them right here?" he said.

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The 12-year teacher always has been fond of animals. In college, Swanson purchased a snake and ferret.

During his teaching stints at Moorhead and Fargo Shanley High, Swanson has adopted a dizzying number of insects, reptiles, birds, fish and mammals.

He relies largely on donations and scans classified ads for exotic animal giveaways. Local pet stores contact him when nontraditional pets are returned. He'd still like to add a sugar glider, a squirrel-like creature, and a saltwater fish tank.

Parents and students contribute equipment and food. Hornbacher's Foods donates old vegetables. Swanson estimates he spends $100 to $150 of his own money each month caring for the animals.

Still, the money and effort are worth the life lessons the animals teach, he said.

By volunteering to feed and water the animals or clean cages, students learn responsibility. By feeding live rodents to some of the snakes and lizards, students learn about the natural food chain.

During the summer break, about 30 of the animals go home with students.

"It's better than reading about it in a book," said seventh-grader Shane Kerber. He added that feeding mice to the corn snake every Friday is a popular middle school attraction.

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During a recent lesson, students studied the order of reptiles. As Swanson talked about the characteristics of each family, students observed and handled live examples of each.

Students examined the beaks of Mandy and Melvin, a pair of Russian tortoises. When a student asked which was Mandy, the question spurred a discussion about how female turtles are usually bigger because they lay eggs.

Swanson brought out Brutus the iguana to show students his external ears, a characteristic of lizards. On George, he showed students the remnants of legs near the tip of the python's tail.

"When you're learning about them, you can see what they're really like," said student Andrea Jensen.

Meanwhile, Oreo the rabbit, Boo the chinchilla and two ferrets romped around the classroom, not even a slight distraction in the school zoo.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Erin Hemme Froslie at (701) 241-5534

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