Videos showing Petaluma High School students abusing rats at an on-campus wildlife museum have sparked heartbreak, outrage and a petition to the governor asking for closure of the nonprofit program.
The videos, posted in the past two weeks to an anonymous student’s Instagram account, apparently caught the eye of a woman in Pittsburgh, Pa., who started the Change.org petition to Gov. Jerry Brown. As of late Thursday it had more than 1,000 signatures.
The incidents are believed to have occurred late last year and in February at the Petaluma Wildlife Museum, a private-public partnership that provides students with hands-on animal husbandry schoolwork and job experience with the nonprofit museum.
School and museum officials said Thursday the students involved have been disciplined. Student disciplinary records are confidential, but school and museum officials confirmed the students involved have been removed from the program.
Adult museum volunteers said they were saddened and baffled at the apparent callousness shown by students who were supposed to be caring for the rats. The rats were raised to be food for the reptiles also housed at the museum.
“It breaks my heart,” said Christine Walker, the museum’s outreach director. “I don’t know why they would do this.
“I think that there are really big questions there: Who they learned this behavior from and why they thought it was OK. I don’t have those answers,” she said.
The videos show at least two students slamming live rats against a wall or a bin to kill them. It was unknown how many students were involved or how many were disciplined.
Walker said she’s lost sleep over the incidents.
“This is something the district doesn’t condone, the teacher doesn’t condone, the program doesn’t condone,” Petaluma City Schools Superintendent Steve Bolman said. “The discipline has been addressed and the students know that it’s unacceptable.”
Lori Glenn, president of the museum’s board of directors, said Thursday she believes the incidents were an anomaly. She defended the program’s teacher, Kim Arntz. Arntz was unavailable as she was dealing with a family emergency.
Like Walker, Glenn said the incidents have been upsetting.
“This has been consuming me since the videos came out,” she said. “It’s a good program. I’ll stop the rat feeding program if that what it takes. If it takes away from the program, maybe we need to stop it and revisit it.”
Glenn said the feeder rat program was supposed to assure good quality food for the reptiles. She said with frozen rats, the quality isn’t always known.
“Further, it gives the kids an idea of how it works,” she said. “I live on a ranch, I eat meat. That cow doesn’t lay down on a platter for my steak. It’s not a pet. There’s a reality that the animal will be consumed.”
Photos and a letter ostensibly posted by the unnamed student imply other inhumane treatment, Glenn said, which is a misrepresentation. One photo showing a rat in water in a blender is a frozen rat being defrosted, not a rat about to be chopped up, she said.
But what was shown in the videos was “absolutely wrong, there’s no debate about that,” she said. “We don’t condone that, we don’t teach that.”
The identity of the student who posted the video and photos to Instagram and the contents of a letter she purportedly wrote to the governor couldn’t be independently verified.
Student volunteers at the museum were supposed to kill the rats humanely using the “cervical dislocation” method, essentially breaking their spines to kill them quickly.
After a complaint in February, Bolman said, Petaluma Animal Services responded and inspected the classroom facilities and student practices. He said the cervical dislocation method is approved and student volunteers are trained in the proper techniques meant to assure the rats don’t suffer needlessly.
But animal services officer Mark Scott and a veterinarian who volunteers with the program agreed to instead begin using a carbon dioxide chamber to kill the rats. Training will occur next week, Glenn said.
It was unclear why the videos apparently were posted only this month if the incidents happened last winter.
A student who claims responsibility for posting the videos told the Petaluma Argus-Courier that she reported abuse to numerous officials. But several school and museum officials said they had no knowledge of any abuse until Animal Services investigated.
“Nobody said anything to Ms. Arntz. There were no complaints to the board, no complaints to the principal,” Glenn said. “You’ve got five or six other people you could’ve said something to. I almost wonder, was this kind of made to be sensational?
“As soon as we were made aware of it, we jumped on it right away,” she said.
Supervision can be limited in the classroom and museum rooms. There may be 30 high-school age students in a museum class and another 75 elementary school students taking a tour, Glenn said.
Walker sometimes spends eight hours at a time with students at weekend events that involve public tours and educational programs. She said the young people in the program are “good kids.”
“They are not only good students, but they are volunteers,” she said. “I think we’re all poised to understand the truth…We’re trying very hard to understand what happened and correct it.
“People will absolutely need to make amends.”
You can reach Staff Writer Lori A. Carter at 762-7297 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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