PETA puts end to use of hamster in anti-smoking lesson
By Ashley Powers
THE DALLAS MORNING NEWS - 29 nov
SUNNYVALE - The fourth-graders at Sunnyvale School love their class hamster. And their health teacher, Jane Wheeler, wants them to hate cigarette smoke.
So she brainstormed this idea: When she teaches about tobacco, she rests the children's furry friend in a gallon jar. Then she lights an off-brand cigarette shoved into the top of an empty dish-soap bottle. She squeezes the bottle, the cigarette tip glows red, and smoke wafts into the jar for maybe half a minute.
The hamster winces and rubs her tiny eyes. Wheeler rescues the rodent and asks her students in Classroom 139: What does this tell us about smoking?
She's done the demonstration for five or six years in front of 60 or so students each year. No one ever complained.
Then a Sunnyvale mom tipped off People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
Danica Magee-Cain, whose oldest son is a first-grader, recently heard about the lesson from the daughter of a family friend. When the girl was in Wheeler's class, her parents were afraid to "ruffle feathers," Magee-Cain said. They didn't protest.
But Magee-Cain kept thinking of her son, who had cried during the movie "My Dog Skip" when Skip got hit by a shovel.
"My son would have risen up there and tried to get that hamster out," she said.
Having heard that this year's demonstration was scheduled for last week, Magee-Cain decided something should be done. She e-mailed PETA.
"There is a teacher who apparently for the American Cancer Society's Smokeout day forces a hamster or a mouse to inhale smoke," she wrote. "Help me stop this."
Such causes are PETA's forte. On Nov. 13, the group says, it faxed a letter to Hart Middle School in Pleasanton. A science teacher there had instructed a boy to drop a goldfish into containers of water that varied in temperature. The fish died.
"It's an idiotic thing with the goldfish," said Mary Beth Sweetland, a director at PETA in Norfolk, Va., "but giving a hamster smoke tops the list of pointless school exercises."
On Nov. 19 at 1 p.m., PETA faxed Sunnyvale principal David Greer.
At 3 p.m., PETA left him a voice mail.
At 5 p.m., PETA posted on its Web site an update marked "Urgent!" A Sunnyvale teacher, the item read, is "planning to conduct a cruel classroom experiment in which a hamster is placed in a clear container without ventilation and smoke is pumped into the chamber."
School officials were shocked. A plaque in the main office recognizes Wheeler as 2001-02 Teacher of the Year. She's taught math, science and health at Sunnyvale for two decades.
Wheeler was stunned to be targeted by PETA. "That's where you're being cruel and harsh," she said.
As it turned out, Magee-Cain had a couple of details wrong in her e-mail. The top of the jar is open during the demonstration -- and hamster day took place a week earlier.
As before, the demonstration made an impact. Ann Davis said her 9-year-old daughter was awestruck and told her how bad it was to start smoking.
After a demonstration two years ago, Janet Clements gave up the occasional Marlboro Light after son Neil came home wanting to talk about smoking.
The same year, Howie Burkhalter's daughter Bailey was shaken by the experiment.
"She said, 'I felt bad for that poor hamster,'" said Burkhalter, the PTA president. "'But I can see how smoke can affect you."'
The National Science Teachers Association encourages teachers to have animals in the classroom: They invigorate textbook lessons with real life.
But from now on, Wheeler said, her classroom's brown-and-beige hamster will breathe easier in its plastic cage between the two bubbling fish tanks.
PETA corrected its Web posting twice: first fixing the factual gaffes, then saying Greer had promised that this year's demonstration was the last.
PETA removed its alert this week.
For its part, the hamster is spending Thanksgiving break with one of the kids. The cuddly creature needs a name, too.
After the cigarette display, a few kids suggested "Smoky."
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