Volume 14
Issue 3

An innovative principal’s animal menagerie gives teachers a living lesson plan and students a mature respect for wildlife . . .

By Diane Crowe

Let me tell you about our school and our bats. At Gullett Elementary in Austin, Texas, where I am principal, we have about 500 students–kindergarten through fifth grade–and about 100 animals. I brought the animals with me when I came here eleven years ago. Tucked in every spare corner, lining every corridor, and covering each grassy courtyard are habitats for birds, mammals, reptiles, fish, amphibians, insects, and spiders.

Our menagerie serves an important educational purpose: with animals residing just a few feet from the classrooms, teachers have examples of every major Animalia classification at their fingertips, and children are much more curious about the creatures that share their hallways than they would be about a picture in a book. We stress that these are wild animals, not pets, and that having them here is a unique privilege. New students are sometimes afraid of some of the animals, but this fear quickly dissipates when learning takes over.

Students from different grade levels care for the animals on a rotating schedule that changes monthly. Fifth-grade students share the honor of caring for some of our most popular animals: our three straw-colored flying foxes (Eidolon helvum). During the school year the flying foxes live in a room-sized, walk-in enclosure in the main hallway for all of us to enjoy. In summer, they stay in an outside enclosure at the home of an animal-lover friend of mine, who loaned us the bats six years ago. Over the years we also have had big brown bats (Eptesicus fuscus), red bats (Lasiurus borealis), and Mexican free-tailed bats (Tadarida brasiliensis), but the flying foxes are best suited to our school environment.

The bats seem well acclimated to their school-day routine. They play at night, sleep in the morning, and wake up about noon in anticipation of their fruit plate and juice. If the children are a little late in food preparation, the bats do not hesitate to remind everyone how hungry they are with their insistent calls.

Students walk into the cage to deliver the meal but are not allowed to touch the bats. The bats aren’t afraid of the children; just as soon as the food has been deposited on the feeding platform, they scramble down the side of the netted cage, walking with their feet and thumbs. Their daily fruit and vegetable diet includes bananas, honeydew, cantaloupe, and mango, supplemented with a crumbled monkey chow for protein (not a favorite). Some of our messiest eaters, the bats are constantly spitting small pieces of food all over the cage.

Being a bat caretaker is such a coveted job for our fifth-graders that the children get here at 7:00 a.m. to wash the serving tray, clean up soiled newspapers, and line the floor with clean papers. The bats seem to know that there is no food involved at that hour, so they remain asleep inside the hiding place we made for them, a circular black curtain hanging in one corner of the enclosure.

Over the past six years, our school has educated more than 6,000 students and their parents about bats and their role in the environment. Every class has a unit on bats, so the children gradually come to understand more complex chiropteran attributes. Classes from other schools are invited to visit Gullett and attend animal programs by our students. Our fifth-graders teach all the bat segments.

Our animal family grows larger every year as babies are born to the bats, chinchillas, turtles, hedgehogs, goats, sheep, chickens, ducks, guinea pigs, and hamsters. Ten bat babies have been born to our captive colonies–one per mother per year, in the fall. Several of the births have occurred during the school day when older students were fortunate to be able to watch the births.

New babies usually stay attached to their mothers for three or four weeks. After this time, they begin to hang on their own but still go back to the mother for comfort and reassurance. Our one male bat has little to do with the pups. At about five or six weeks of age, the mother starts to wean the baby. In the final stages of weaning, the mothers move away from their babies, and we can hear the pups’ high-pitched cries for two or three days. The students are always amazed at how quickly the pups have to grow up. Once a pup is weaned, and especially if it is a male, the adult bats do not seem to want it around anymore. Barbara French, a BCI staff member and bat rehabilitator, then takes the young ones and begins preparing them to become public relations/education bats for BCI–those famous bats we see at lectures and on TV that instantly transform people’s attitudes.

Our proximity and good relationship with BCI is one of many special circumstances that have made Gullet’s unique program possible. While our animals are a source of much fascination, I wouldn’t recommend this curriculum for everyone; it’s a continual struggle to keep the cages clean, to find the right bat food in the winter, and especially to raise money for food, which we do through donations and the sale of snacks after school. But somehow everybody gets fed and loved. The animals are my passion, and as I see students embrace the same passion–teaching others about animals, working with the animals in their spare time, and going to science-oriented middle schools— I know it’s all worth it.

Diane Crowe has been an educator for 34 years. She also manages Crowe’s Nest Farm, where most of her animals stay during summer vacation. This fall, Dr. Crowe and the animals have moved to a new school in the Austin area, where she will continue her trademark animal curriculum.

Gullett Elementary students deliver meals to the bats through a child-sized door in the walk-in cage in the hallway. Classes decorated the bat cage area so that any passerby could get an instant lesson from bat posters, magazine articles, and the children’s own bat artwork and reports.

Last year, fifth-graders Kaitlyn Hartley, Laura Quenon, and Rachael Clawson (left to right) were three of the lucky students who got to prepare and deliver
fresh food and juice to the Gullett Elementary straw-colored flying foxes.

Last year’s newest pup (center) "walks" across the netted roof of the cage at Gullett Elementary to get food with his mother and father.

The author, the only person at Gullet who handles the flying foxes, shows off a bat named Max.