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Pupils enjoy the wild life Endangered animals on hand to teach about human impact

Most sixth-graders head to their school library to use books and the Internet to research such topics as endangered animals and animal adaptation.

Lewiston-Porter Middle School's sixth-graders are a bit different. They went to their school library Monday to see seven animal species. They even got to pet them while they learned about them.

Two sixth-grade classes met two chinchillas, Ollie and Oliver, an endangered species from South America's Andes Mountains; and Chubbs and Rocky, two ferrets who have cousins -- Utah's black-footed ferrets -- which also are endangered species.

On the more adaptable side of the animal spectrum, they met Paris, a gray domestic lion-headed rabbit -- lots of fur around her face -- and Arthuretta, a black soil bearded dragon from Australia.

They were accompanied by Veronica, a cockatiel; a rather furry guinea pig named Cali; and a small hedgehog called Thistle.

The animals belong to Patricia Stapley and her daughter Kaili, who regularly give public presentations about animals for schools and other organizations.

The Stapleys run Stapley's Feed Center in Depew. Patricia Stapley said the animals are her pets, most of which she received from people who were unable to care for them.

As her daughter took one pet after another to visit each pupil, Stapley told the pupils about them.

She said the chinchilla became endangered because, dating back to the Spanish explorers, they were overhunted for their extremely soft and beautiful fur. As a result, they have been protected for a long time by the Chilean government.

Stapley said that while ferrets Chubbs and Rocky are not endangered, their cousin, the black-footed ferret, almost became extinct in the late 1980s or early 1990s after southwest cattlemen in the Utah area killed off much of the prairie dog population, taking away the little pole cats' main food supply.

"The black-footed ferret is the rarest mammal on earth," she said. "There was a time when there were an estimated six to 18 left . . . Now they are protected under the [U.S.] Endangered Species Act to help them make a comeback."

The black soil bearded dragon, she said, is a success story of its own. Once a desert animal, the lizard has adapted and now lives very comfortably in woods and grass, she said.

It has been able to survive predators by changing its color to black on parts of its body to blend with its surroundings. Armed with sharp claws that allow it to dig and climb very well, it also has spines to make it look dangerous, she said.

"Their spines look fierce, so it makes predators think twice about attacking. But the spines are actually very soft," Stapley said. She also said the dragon can lift its head and make itself appear larger and more dangerous as a means of protecting itself.

One of the most successful species is the rabbit. They are survivors because they can live almost anywhere and eat most plants. She said explorers would take rabbits on their ships because they frequently reproduced and grew very rapidly, giving crews a good and familiar source of meat during lengthy voyages.

The animals were a hit with pupils, who said they learned a number of things they didn't know about those species.

Andrew J. Laughlin, 11, said, "I thought it was interesting that chinchillas are so soft. I liked it that they have to wash themselves in very fine sand to get clean."

Stapley gave the pupils a demonstration with Ollie. The chinchilla flopped around in a pan of sand, making it fly all over the place as Ollie obviously enjoyed the wash.

Andrew said he thought the presentation was useful: "We have to do a project on animal adaptation. I got a lot of information today, and I might consider doing my project on the chinchilla because of it."

Marlene Smith, 11, was taken with Thistle. "I learned what a hedgehog is and how it got its name. I didn't know what one was before," she said.

Stapley said hedgehogs probably earned their names by feasting on grubs along hedgerows and giving out little snorts like a pig while they eat.

School Librarian Karen Doktor said she has been bringing the Stapleys and part of their menagerie into school to supplement the science curriculum for about four years.

"It brings [the pupils'] lesson to life by giving them a hands-on experience," Doktor said. "They're able to touch the animals, so they get interested in reading more about them."

"It's absolutely perfect because it's curriculum-related," she added. "Our sixth-graders study endangered species and animal adaptation, and their teachers have them do projects in that area," Doktor said.

e-mail: pwestmoore@buffnews.com

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