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Exotic pets teach science lessons

December 18th, 2003, 12:00 AM
Exotic pets teach science lessons
Norwich Bulletin

NORWICH -- Most mothers bring in cupcakes to school when their child has a birthday. Lesa Scheifele brings in boa constrictors.

Or tarantulas, ferrets, parrots or pythons.

Scheifele is not just mother to Samantha and Peter, students in the fourth and fifth grade Integrated Day Program at Moriarty Elementary School; she's an exotic animal trainer. And on her children's birthdays, she lets them choose an animal for her to bring into class.

Lately, though, Scheifele has felt guilty that kids in other Moriarty classes didn't get a chance to see the animals. So she and her company, "The Lost Ark," donated a grant worth $5,000 to the school. This covers a year-long series of monthly full-day animal behavior programs for the entire school.

On Tuesday, Scheifele led a segment on endangered species and animal adaptation for survival. Or, as students might put it, "The Greatest Show On Earth."

Although an albino ferret named Fluffernutter almost fell asleep, none of the two-legged creatures in the audience were in any danger of that. Students were on the edge of their seats as Scheifele introduced them to animals with remarkable adaptation strategies.

There were Fluffernutter and Puck, a domestic black ferret, who were more flexible than many gymnasts. There was Dartagnan, a Double Yellow-head Amazon Parrot, who could hang upside down, talk and sing.

And there was a mysterious creature in a box, a living relative of dinosaurs, who turned out to be, to everyone's surprise, a chicken. The bantam Buff Cochin named Gus played the piano with his beak.

The kids also met Hari, a boa constrictor, with a better sense of smell in her tongue than a dog has in its nose. Everyone petted her except one student who moved his chair back. "The snake scared the heck out of me," he said afterwards.

Can you top a chicken playing the piano? Yes, if you have a celebrity on tap.

Otter, a beagle/miniature pinscher cross who recently appeared on "Planet's Funniest Animals," lived up to his star reputation by jumping through hoops and even painting a picture. At home with Scheifele, he even fetches the remote, she said.

Although the dog artist made a big impression, many students felt similarly to fourth grader Ce'nedra Darragh, who liked learning "that the chicken is related to a dinosaur."

Scheifele said most exotic animals don't make good pets. A parrot, for example, is expensive to feed and dangerous,too, she said.

It's not only kids who learned something. All that Principal Linda Demikat knew about chickens was that she was scratched by one on the farm where she grew up. Now that she's watched Gus play the piano, she sees their intelligence. "It's not just an animal in the barnyard," she said.