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The pets arrived packed in various makeshift coffins. There was a tarantula in a terrarium, a sugar glider (nocturnal marsupial similar to a flying squirrel) in a grocery bag, a rabbit in a trash bag, a chameleon in a box, an anole (small lizard), two frogs, three rats, and two mice—all in Ziploc bags.

The dozen deceased were surrendered on Tuesday to the Washington Humane Society for cremation. The pets had ended their lives serving various D.C.-area environmental education programs run by the Living Classrooms Foundation.

The foundation, which educates “disconnected youth,” works with about 12,000 kids, mostly from Wards 6, 7, and 8, as well as from Prince George’s County. It uses resources like its “rolling rain forest,” a 55-foot show trailer that boasts exotic animals and a swinging bridge, to teach kids about environmental stewardship. The creatures are pivotal to that goal. But sometimes they lose a few.

Confronted with Living Classrooms’ recent critter carnage, the Humane Society has decided it needs to take a hard look at the situation. “An investigation is pending to discover what happened to the classroom pets,” the society says.

John Dillow, executive director of Living Classrooms D.C., says that despite the society’s concerns, there’s nothing suspicious going on. Animals die. “The interesting part is that it’s fairly normal to see this number,” says Dillow, who claims the animal deaths occurred over a year or more, not all at once.

Because of cremation costs, he says, which can be somewhere around $100 per animal (even for a tarantula?), Living Classrooms keeps its expired pets in a freezer until the departed number at least 10. The foundation then goes looking for a good deal on incineration. This time, word was the Humane Society fit that bill. “Our animal care specialist heard through a friend that there was a program that would cremate for free,” says Dillow.

Dillow understands how unloading a dozen lifeless pets to be burned would raise some eyebrows. But, he says, “We’re kind of known as that place where you can just drop off your animals.” That means, he explains, the foundation gets a lot of animals that aren’t in the best of health.

Dillow claims the remaining pets under his organization’s roof—12 to 15—are all well cared for. Each year, he points out, Living Classrooms spends around $6,500 on animal vittles, and about $30,000 on health care. The recently passed away sugar glider, for instance, spent several nights in a hospital before kicking the bucket.

Even though there’s a generous amount of currency being spent, Lisa Wanthe, captive exotic animal specialist for the D.C. office of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, thinks Living Classrooms should stop using animals for education. “PETA is opposed to using animals in this way,” she says. “We think it is inappropriate for the animals and downright cruel for the animals.”

Asked whether losing 12 pets over a span of a year or so seems odd, the expert says that, though she can’t know for sure, it “would be a safe bet to say that what we see in situations like this is that the animals’ life spans are shorter because of inadequate care.”

What is the lifespan on an anole, anyway?

Photo Courtesy of Living Classrooms Foundation