A Zoo at North Ridge Elementary: Almost 20 Years in the Making

LUBBOCK, TX - In 1999, a North Ridge Elementary teacher welcomed four animals into her science class. Almost twenty years later, the program developed into 'Zoo Crew' with more than 100 unique animals across almost every classroom. 

"I think I started it because I worked at a zoo in high school and college. When I came to Lubbock and we had no zoo, I guess I thought I had to create one," said Debbie Zack, a retired teacher at North Ridge and founding director of Zoo Crew.

Students care for the animals each and every day – feeding and cleaning them, disposing of waste and playing with them – carrying out all other routine responsibilities required of having a pet. 

The program challenges the students in two ways: by teaching them responsibility and learning how to take care of the environment, said Zack.

"It challenges them to take care of animals and realize what it takes," she said. 

Teachers utilize the program as an incentive for students to work hard in their studies, said Kamie Pursell, current director of Zoo Crew.

"If they are working hard in class, teachers will volunteer them to help taking care of things," she said.

When school goes on break, students have the opportunity to bring the animals home. This allows full immersion for students in the responsibility of owning a pet. It also allows them to further connect with the animals.

"So, in a way, they are pet therapy animals, even though they are not called that directly," said Zack.

"Sometimes working with an animal, there is not as much pressure as working with an adult. There is no judgement with an animal and it helps give them that confidence they need to really succeed," said Pursell.

The animals are in almost every classroom of the school, with science classes having more animals because it's more applicable in that setting, said Pursell.

In addition to the life skills it teaches students, the program is a great academic tool to teach about life science and animals they might not otherwise have ever known about, said Pursell.

Teachers play a big roll in the success of the program, because they are expected to check the animals' health every day and give them basic food, water and necessities, said Zack.

Zoo Crew is mainly funded by the school's recycling program, which Zack said gives the students a concrete reason to recycle.

"We are set up in a way that the community around us can bring their recycling from home and sort it into specific trailers or dumpsters," at the back of the school. "We also recycle in each classroom and have a school wide recycling day that the children can bring recycling from home as well," said Pursell.

Other events they host throughout the year include a flower sale in April, Easter pictures and participation in school buddy day, to name a few.

Zoo Crew always encourage donations of "animals, pine shavings, fresh food, dried food, cages and other supplies as well," she said. Monetary donations are an additional help, she said.

On occasion, they also sell baby animals born in their zoo program. 

For more information or updates, follow their Facebook page @nrzoocrew.

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