Ryan Barker lifted the carrot-blond rat from its cage and held it up to his face.
“Hi, Alexi,” the 11-year-old said sweetly.
Ryan returned to his desk and put Alexi on his shoulder. The rat’s nose searched the air, then explored Ryan’s collar. Alexi crawled inside Ryan’s shirt, popping a button, and soon her nose emerged from a sleeve.
As sixth-grade teacher Carole Kinsey read to her class at Canfield Middle School, furry creatures accompanied at least half of her listening students.
Rats slept in sweat-shirt hoods. Hamsters curled in laps. Rodents perched on shoulders, crawled down arms and searched for invisible delicacies in the palms of small hands.
“They like salt,” Ryan explained.
Kinsey started collecting animals for her classroom six years ago. A student who raised hamsters for pet stores convinced her to try a couple. She later adopted a rat and its 11 babies.
“I fell in love,” said Kinsey, who some call Dr. Doolittle.
Now Kinsey has about 20 rats and hamsters, but the number fluctuates constantly. She takes in some homeless animals and adopts them out. Several students in Kinsey’s first and second period classes have adopted animals. Teachers have, too.
On Friday, special education director Pat Pickins came by, shopping for a rat to replace one that died.
“I’m going to take Gizmo home and see if we get along,” Pickins said as the albino rat crawled under his sports jacket.
Kinsey tried keeping other animals, she said, but “the finches threw seeds all over the place, the fish were a snore, so we went back to rats and hamsters.”
Students check out animals to take home for the weekend. They also have them for the spring, Christmas and summer vacations.
Kinsey uses the animals for some science lessons, such as explaining genetics and reproduction. The students purposely bred a rat named Bowwow. She gave birth to a litter, about half of which she ate.
The greatest benefit of having a virtual zoo in her classroom is the lessons of kindness and responsibility that animals offer.
The gentleness that small rodents require “is a mind-set that carries over to people,” Kinsey said.
If students start snatching animals from each other, or become too distracted from schoolwork, Kinsey orders that all the animals be returned to their cages.
“We learn to listen with the rats, but we take care of them, too,” said Emma Palmer, 12.
Each day students tend to the cages, removing dirty cedar-chip bedding, wiping the glass with disinfectant, inserting fresh bedding. They even vacuum the classroom carpet when they’re done.
During Friday’s cleaning routine, a near tragedy unfolded.
“Mrs. Kinsey, somebody put the two hamsters together,” called a panicked student.
The two male hamsters were fastened in a death grip of teeth and claws. Kinsey rushed to separate them.
“They’re trying to kill each other,” she said. Astounded students crowded around to watch the struggle.
As Kinsey pulled hamsters Jingle and Taz apart, Jingle sank his teeth into Kinsey’s finger.
The fight over, Kinsey - with a bloody paper towel pressed against her finger - used the mayhem as an opportunity to sternly remind her students on the importance of keeping the males separated.
“This is the first time that has happened in three years,” Kinsey said. “Can you see the danger? They were going to fight until Taz killed him.”
Such episodes are rare. The children face little risk from the animals. Despite rodents’ reputation for spreading disease, veterinarian Michael Flynn said domesticated rats and hamsters do not transmit diseases to humans.
“Rats got a bad rap during the Black Plague,” Flynn said.
Few parents object to the zoo environment, and some credit Kinsey for renewing their children’s interest in school.Kinsey’s peers have nominated her for the Teacher of the Year award.
“I’ll tell you one thing about Mrs. Kinsey,” Emma said. “She’s the funnest teacher in the whole school.”