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Who'll Take The Tortoise? What Happens To Classroom Pets During The Lockdown

The Dally family doesn't consider Frisky a demanding house guest.
Sarah Stacke for NPR
The Dally family doesn't consider Frisky a demanding house guest.

In the pandemic, families are taking on all kinds of unexpected roles. Here's another one: zookeeper.

When the New York City schools closed in March, my son's teacher, Mary Pfeifer, sent an email to parents, asking who would be willing to invite the classroom pets into their homes — for the duration.

The response was immediate. "It's a very giving community" says Pfeifer, who teaches pre-K through second grade science at PS 58 in Brooklyn.


Ms. Pfeifer, as she's known to her students, knows Holly the Russian tortoise, Frisky the frog, and the other classroom companions are in good hands. But that doesn't stop her from thinking about them. "They're pets. I miss knowing what they're doing," she says.

"I worry about the two frogs the most. They have the most care involved."

In addition to Holly and Frisky, there's Chubby the frog, as well as an assortment of invertebrates including walking sticks, garden snails, beetles, worms and bugs. "Hands-on time with live creatures is invaluable," Ms. Pfeifer says.

With short-term changes becoming long term, the families who welcomed the animals into their upended lives are finding companionship, entertainment and learning opportunities.

Chubby the frog


Bryan Sleeper and Sarah Stacke

Errol Sleeper, 6 years old

Oscar Stacke, 8 months old

I was quick to enlist our services when I heard Chubby the frog needed a foster home. Since arriving in March, we've discovered a lot about Chubby and the crickets she eats.

Chubby gets two daily mists. She breathes through her skin and needs a moist environment to survive. She's nocturnal and likes to soak in her pool at night. We've learned that frogs use their eyeball muscles to swallow, and we were also relieved to learn that it was the pet trade business that nicknamed her species "chubby frog," rather than PS 58 students.

When we can find Chubby — she's very good at burrowing into the dirt — my first-grade son, Errol, likes watching her open and close her mouth.

We've been surprised that crickets, considered a hardy pest in houses and gardens, have proven delicate in captivity. And they can be delivered by mail; who knew? Keeping their container free of poo and carcasses is a dirty job that we will not miss when Chubby returns to her forever home. Crickets do have one good quality: They chirp at night, which we all find very peaceful, and will miss when they leave.

Holly the Russian tortoise

Haris Agha and Christine Topalian-Agha

Aram Agha, 6 years old

Ellias Agha, 3 years old

When the Agha family agreed to take in Holly the tortoise, they didn't know what they were getting into. But over the past two months, Holly has become a source of comfort during the long, unpredictable days of the city's lockdown. "She's a new experience and something the kids can enjoy," says Christine Topalian-Agha, whose 6-year-old son, Aram, is a student of Ms. Pfeifer's.

Aram is Holly's primary caretaker, and the tortoise lives in his bedroom, in a 3-foot container with a bath, plants and bark flooring. He lets her out sometimes to crawl around freely. Aram has written a book about the experience, titled My Life with Holly.

"She's given Aram something very special," says Christine, "something [of] his own that he manages and takes care of."

"She sleeps a lot more than I thought she did," notes Aram. "I also never knew she was Russian."

Though the Aghas' hands are full with work, home-schooling and, for a few terrifying weeks, father Haris Agha's COVID-19 infection and recovery, ­­Christine says they are grateful to have Holly in their lives. When the tortoise returns to PS 58, they plan to get one of of their own.

The Log Hotel

Cadria and Mark Hibbert

Beatrice Hibbert, 7 years old

James Hibbert, 21 months

"We have a lot of bugs," explains Cadria Hibbert. Though not entirely sure who is sheltering inside the Log Hotel from Ms. Pfeifer's PS 58 science classroom, the Hibberts have confirmed there are two large beetles, two millipedes and what seems to be a growing number of roly-polies. (The family wonders whether the bugs are mating.)

The Log Hotel, in its terrarium, has found a home next to the Hibberts' hermit crab and the LED light station they use to grow garden plants year-round. "I like that we now have a whole area on the shelves dedicated to ecosystems," says Cadria.

Her daughter Beatrice, 7, has been studying the Log Hotel's needs, including what the creatures eat, and she has learned that they like to be sprayed with water throughout the day to keep the soil moist. "I was brought up in the countryside with lots of bugs like this," says Cadria. "I'm glad Beatrice knows what they look like — in New York, you see cockroaches but not much else."

Frisky the frog

Charles Dally

Cleo, 9 years old

Emma, 5 years old

The Dally family has a few questions about Frisky: Is he missing the other PS 58 classroom pets? Would he like to have more plants in his tank? What will we do with him if we go on vacation?

Frisky arrived at PS 58 as a tadpole six years ago and was raised in the classroom along with his mate, Fiona, who died last year, Ms. Pfeifer says.

Frisky now lives in a sunny corner of the Dally's Brooklyn apartment. An unassuming amphibian, his behavior has surprised the family a couple times. Every night, dad Charles Dally says Frisky becomes quite noisy. At first he thought Cleo, 9, or Emma, 5, had left the metronome on after piano practice. "Tik tok, tik tok. Now I know it's Frisky," he says.

The Dallys don't consider Frisky a demanding house guest. He eats food pellets, and his tank gets cleaned every week or two. Frisky, according to Cleo and Emma, loves playing with his reflection in the walls of his home.

"Cleo and Emma get a lot of enjoyment out of him," says Charles. "Especially at the beginning, they watched him a lot. Now, he's a part of the environment, kind of like the furniture."

Garden Snails

Andrew Goldberg and Gabrielle Paupeck

Jonah Goldberg, 10 years old

Violet Goldberg, 7 years old

In mid-April, it appeared the garden snails were trying to reproduce. Andrew Goldberg and Gabrielle Paupeck, who took the snails home from PS 58, sent a picture of the activity to Ms. Pfeifer. She confirmed their suspicions. After the tiny, white snail eggs appeared, Ms. Pfeifer received another picture. She advised the family that the eggs should hatch in another two weeks.

"I've been trying to get them to lay eggs for seven years," says Ms. Pfeifer. "Obviously, the Goldbergs are doing something right."

The snails live in a plastic tank with a backdrop that Violet, 7, drew for them. The animals are easy and low maintenance. "Occasionally they like a leaf, grape or pepper, but what they really want is carrots," explains mom Gabrielle. "They also eat chalk to make their shells hard," adds 10-year-old Jonah.

When asked whether the snails have changed the family dynamic, dad Andrew Goldberg replies, not so much: "We all enjoy the snails, but they're not really a gateway to a dog."

Sarah Stacke is a photojournalist who lives in New York City.

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