Some people get unusual animals, only to learn they aren’t ideal pets. Westdale Heights Academic Magnet School has turned this problem into a different kind of education.

The Baton Rouge school’s environmental science lab has chinchillas, degus, tree frogs, a millipede and several other animals that help teachers add a real-world touch to lessons. A select group of students gets a regular, personal tutorial.

“The animals are a great attraction,” said Mary Legoria, who runs the science lab. “It’s a way to get (students) interested in the environment.

“A lot of them will never have a pet. Their parents don’t want to deal with it. It gives them a chance to have a pet and know how much work a pet is. You have to clean it. A lot of times a kid gets a pet and they don’t want to clean it, and parents get rid of it.”

Which is how Legoria, who has been at Westdale since the lab began, acquired some of the animals.

Through word of mouth, she learned about one of the chinchillas. Someone at the LSU School of Veterinary Medicine became aware of the degus, which are South American rodents, that needed a home. The menagerie also includes three species of gecko, guinea pigs and hamsters.

The science lab isn’t only about animals.

It has an inflatable planetarium, and it serves as a resource to introduce concepts for a variety of sciences, Legoria said.

“I’m very passionate about science, especially environmental science and biology, so the teachers can learn a little bit while they’re with the kids, too,” Legoria said. “There’s more of a nice flow from the lab to the classroom if the teachers come in. I talk to them and we discuss what concepts they’re teaching, and then we do the lab that goes with the concepts they’re doing. It kind of adds to the content they’re teaching. I either introduce the concept or I reinforce the concept. It’s all hands-on.”

That’s how it is for the science lab team members, 48 third- through fifth-graders who come in each school day to feed, water, clean cages and handle other aspects of care for the marsupials, rodents, fish and other fauna that call the lab home. Legoria takes care of the animals on weekends, during holidays and during the summer.

So many students want to be on the team that they have to write an essay about how responsible they are as part of the application process.

“It’s taught me how to deal with different animals and how different animals react to people,” said fifth-grader Kirsten Young, 11. “Each animal, you need to meet their needs. When I get older, I want to be a veterinarian, so this kind of prepares me for how it’s going to be.”

The two chinchillas and two degus share adjacent cages, which seems appropriate because both are native to Chile. But there are differences. The chinchillas have lush, soft fur in keeping with their Andes Mountains home, while the degus have less fur and are native to more arid areas. Once a week, the chinchillas like to roll in volcanic dust to ward off parasites. Unlike their neighbors, the degus can’t digest sugar, so fruit can’t be part of their diet, said third-grader Silas Sorensen, 9.

“It’s taught me about how some animals, you have to be calm,” said fifth-grader Caroline Kelly, 10. “Some animals like different things. They all have their different personalities, so you have to think about what animal you’re taking care of.”

In addition to its chores each school day, the science lab team does a presentation at the annual LSU Ocean Commotion science day for schoolchildren, and it helps out when there are special science events at school, such as the Red Barn Farm Tour traveling petting zoo, which will come to Westdale on March 15.

“I think it really plays to our kids seeing themselves as environmental scientists,” Westdale Principal Catasha Edwards said.


Follow George Morris on Twitter, @GWMorris.