by Whit Gibbons

February 19, 2006

The following quote from a conservation listserv last week is a chilling comment about educating today's children. "The news article is part of the continuing trend of telling children that nature is better feared than appreciated." The article was about a North Carolina proposal to change the laws at licensed childcare centers across the state, making it illegal to bring reptiles into classrooms.

The threat being addressed is salmonella bacteria, which can cause salmonellosis, a less than pleasant digestive system ailment. A person can get salmonellosis from coming in contact with many animals, especially some reptiles. Symptoms include diarrhea, fever, and cramps within a day of exposure. Many reptiles carry salmonella, but healthy animals are usually not affected. Many salmonella strains exist, and the virulence to humans varies greatly. Few people even require medication to recover safely from salmonellosis.

Some authorities claim that children younger than eight years old should avoid contact with reptiles that could carry salmonella. Others have more lenient opinions, suggesting supervised handling of pet reptiles by children and a requirement that hands be kept away from the mouth, nose, eyes, and food until hands can be washed with soap and water. Teaching children how to deal with the potential hazards of the world is part of the parenting and teaching process.

Reptiles are no different from household pets like dogs and cats. Some work out well for kids; some do not. The risk of a well-kept pet reptile being a problem of any kind is low. The risk of salmonellosis in most instances is too small to warrant concern. As long as cleanliness rules are observed, a qualified educator showing children reptiles or even keeping them in the classroom provides far more good than harm.

Let me mention two other pieces of the natural world besides reptiles that can be made fascinating by an enthusiastic educator. Yet either might also invoke fear for someone who wants to limit environmental education and quell a child's spirit for exploration and adventure.

Mushrooms-Should the rule be that no mushroom be allowed into a classroom because some of them can kill you if you eat them? Never mind the fact that some are beautiful--bright yellow, blue, red, or green. Or that some, like the jack-o-lantern mushrooms I have seen in South Carolina, actually glow in the dark! Imagine a class in which you turn the lights off and the kids get to watch a yellowish green light emanate from a fungus. To me the benefits of creating a sense of appreciation and mystery about the world we live in far outweigh the almost infinitesimally small risk that a child will later go outdoors and eat a mushroom.

Amphibians-Want to know a problem with frogs and toads? Many toads have poisonous glands on the top of their heads that can cause hallucination and foaming at the mouth. The skin secretions of some U.S. treefrogs can be temporarily blinding if they get in your eyes, and those of some frogs from the American tropics are so toxic they can kill a person if they get into a cut. Yet frogs and toads make outstanding classroom pets. Show a child how the adhesive toe pads of a green treefrog let it walk straight up a brick wall like Spiderman. Or imagine a child’s amazement when a cluster of small, gelatinous eggs transforms into tadpoles and then into frogs. Should we not let frogs in classrooms?

The sky-is-falling approach of some government regulatory programs to most of the risks in life is unsettling. An attitude that reptiles are to be feared more than they are to be respected and appreciated is disappointing. A much greater threat to society is the impact on environmental education that could come from public officials emphasizing something bad that "could" happen instead of the low-risk probabilities of what is likely to happen. We should encourage children to enjoy nature and the many fascinating, exciting, and intriguing plants and animals that live in the world rather than trying to override their enjoyment with unnecessary fears and regulations. Teachers and parents should be educated about potential hazards but then be allowed to make their own choices about which risks to take.

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