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Class pets become long-term pandemic houseguests while St. Louis schools are out

Class pets become long-term pandemic houseguests while St. Louis schools are out

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It’s an elementary school rite of passage — taking turns keeping the class pet alive for a weekend or holiday break at home.

But the typical weekend of caring for the class gerbil turned into a much bigger commitment for some St. Louis families when schools shut down in mid-March to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

Laine Schenkelberg said her family has fallen hard for Gracie the chinchilla, a fourth grade class pet at Maplewood Richmond Heights Elementary.

“We’ve got four kids, and we’re all stuck at home, so we were desperate for anything that would be exciting and new for the kids to enjoy,” Schenkelberg said.

Gracie came with a reputation for escaping in family homes, so they’ve been extra careful, especially because the family cat, Mr. Lana, thinks Gracie is a snack.

Chinchillas are “fast and fluffy,” Schenkelberg said, and can wiggle through air duct grates and other tight spots.

Gracie loves to eat applewood sticks and enjoys neck rubs and dust baths, a natural trait of chinchillas to keep their coats healthy. But her best trick probably is enticing the family’s toddlers to take naps by first watching Gracie eat her stick.

Xavier Barnett, the fourth grader, enjoys keeping Gracie in his room to remind him of school. They send pictures of Gracie so his classmates can keep in touch with her, too.

“The way we all ended our time in school was very abrupt, so for us to have her here, it’s a bit of a connection back to his classroom,” Schenkelberg said. “I think that when Gracie has to go back to school we’ll have to get another chinchilla.”

Athena Sit brought home Cinnamon the guinea pig from her kindergarten class at Parkway School District’s River Bend Elementary in Chesterfield.

Athena wanted a dog, so they thought the guinea pig would be a good way to practice responsibility, said her mom, Jenny Truong.

Truong and her husband have been working from home, so the guinea pig has been a nice diversion for Athena and her 2-year-old brother, Truong said.

Cinnamon is “no trouble at all, doesn’t go hiding or anything,” Truong said. “She’s kept them happy and it’s been a joyful experience.”

It was supposed to be a weeklong visit when mice Snowball and Chubbs came to live with the Reliford family in Kirkwood.

“We were just going to take them for spring break but we took them forever, apparently,” Stacy Reliford said.

Elise Reliford, 11, lobbied her fifth grade teacher and classmates at Keysor Elementary in Kirkwood for a class pet last September. When she researched the best caged pets, rats came in first place but she figured the second place mice might be an easier sell.

Elise said Snowball and Chubbs prove that mice can be sweet “pets, not pests.” She hopes to bring them to a classroom at Kirkwood North Middle School in the fall.

“Her middle school has chickens and honeybees,” Stacy Reliford said. “It’s an animal-friendly place, so we’re hoping the mice will be welcomed there, too.”

North Tech High School in Florissant typically pays students to come to the school’s veterinary clinic on weekends and summers to feed animals and clean their cages. But when schools closed in March, the animals were sent home with staff members or other volunteers in the community.

Assistant principal Kevin Edson brought rabbits Bun Bun and Bruce home to the Tower Grove South neighborhood of St. Louis.

While Emaline, 16, Audrey, 11, and Jocelyn, 7, were ecstatic, their mom wasn’t so sure.

“It did not take me very long to recognize that I do not enjoy having two bunnies in my house. Bunnies are gross,” Colette Edson said.

Bun Bun, the more “disgusting one,” likes to pee in his food and sit in it. Both bunnies tend to binge and purge on grass in the backyard, she said.

But like the other parents, Edson said the pets were a welcome distraction for the kids who missed their friends and socializing at school.

“The kids took the bunnies on every Zoom call,” Edson said. “Audrey did not let go of Bruce for any distance learning.”

The rabbits have been on many adventures with the girls, including mini obstacle courses, photo shoots and walks with the help of tiny harnesses and leashes.

“The bunnies have gotten a lot of love and attention and have given my children a lot of happiness in this very strange time,” Edson said.

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