Respect for an opossum? That’s what she teaches

James Madison Elementary School first-graders, right to left, Jaylene Flores, Leilani Garcia and Nyawarga Chak check out “Wally,” a corn snake. Enlarge photo

Mark Reis/(Colorado Springs) Gazette

James Madison Elementary School first-graders, right to left, Jaylene Flores, Leilani Garcia and Nyawarga Chak check out “Wally,” a corn snake.

COLORADO SPRINGS (AP) – Lisa Black and two other teachers at James Madison Elementary School were trying to keep a semblance of order among 75 first-graders.

“You have to be quiet so you don’t scare the guests. You can see them better if they don’t hide,” Black said.

She even showed the students a cool way to express their appreciation by silently shaking their hands in the air.

It worked.

For a minute.

Then came microbursts of excitement. “Ooooh!” “Wow!” “What is it?” “Does he bite?” “How old is he?”

Who could blame them?

After all, the visitors that Kathy Beers of Kritter Karavan was introducing included some never seen before by the children: a lizardly blue-tongued skink named Penny, a South American short-tailed opossum, a cartoon-cute chinchilla, a nonvenomous orange and gold corn snake, two tortoises named Jack and Jill, a pink-eyed albino hedgehog and a herd of Madagascar hissing cockroaches.

Beers squeezed a lot of information into her hourlong talk, educating about habitat, food, anatomy and care.

After four years of doing this, she anticipates questions: “They can’t get loose, so you are not endangered,” she said. “They don’t have diseases that you could catch.”

Because Colorado Springs School District 11 policy forbids students from touching the wildlife, she had to explain “hands off,” too.

There also was the all-important poop lesson when Blizzard the hedgehog had to go and there were loud “uh-ohs” from the kids.

“They can’t raise their paws for a hall pass. If they do a potty, it’s OK,” said Beers, while her assistant Brenda Sandoval came to the rescue of the floor with antiseptic wipes and a trash sack.

This of course elicited a question from one girl: “Why do hedgehogs poop so much?”

Beers explained: “Their daytime is at night, so if we wake them up, they have to go.”

Another first-grader posed a more philosophical question: “Why do animals die a lot?”

Noting that all creatures die, Beers gave some timelines, four to five years for hedgies, 15 to 20 years for chinchillas, turtles even longer.

Then it was on to more show and tell. “These may look kind of creepy, but they are really neat,” Beers said, showing a tank crawling with bugs. The hissing cockroaches were a big hit.

She picked up a couple, each about two inches long, and let them crawl along her arm. She touched one, and he hissed loudly.

“Icky,” a girl up front exclaimed, holding her hand over her mouth.

“I think they are very pretty,” Beers said.

The short-tail opossum named Dante also got to crawl around on Beers’ arm and shoulder. She explained that, no, he wasn’t a rat, even though he sort of looks like one. She showed off the marsupial’s opposable big toes on his hind feet that function like thumbs.

Almost on cue, the little guy showed how he uses his tail to carry nesting fluff. Then he chomped down a couple of live worms, much to the delight of the kids who applauded as instructed earlier by raising their own hands above their heads and shaking them like crazy.

Beers, who taught school for 33 years before retiring 4˝ years ago, always had an animal or two in her classroom.

“My students knew they had to work hard at their lessons to help with their care. Animals are wonderful leverage for kids, especially those who are struggling.”

She grew up with numerous pets. “I always wanted more than I had.”

These days she gets her menagerie from animal rescues, including shelters. Kritter Karavan is a nonprofit organization.

Along with classroom visits, Beers presents programs at libraries, assisted living facilities and birthday parties. She charges for some nonschool programs to pay for food, supplies and veterinarian care.

Beers does this work because “the most important lesson I teach is learning to respect and take care of animals.”

Black, the first-grade teacher, said she is planning some reading, writing and art assignments that will center on the animals that were shown. “And of course, we will write thank-you letters.”

She also is dangling the carrot on a stick. “If you do the best you can on your reading goals and practice at home, Miss Beers will come back again, with lots of new animals,” she told the class.

The students cheered.

Later, 6-year-old Esias Nieves said he wants to see the corn snake again. “I like him because he is wiggly.”

Classmate Wayne Dolin thought about it for a minute. “It’s a hard choice. I like the chinchilla because he looked really soft. I’m going to work hard on reading so I can see a lot more of them.”

Kathy Beers of Kritter Karavan shows off a South American short-tail opossum. Enlarge photo

Mark Reis/(Colorado Springs) Gazette

Kathy Beers of Kritter Karavan shows off a South American short-tail opossum.