School kids find that snakes and spikers aren't all that creepy

"It may be a standoff between 4-year-old Rosie Sawatski and Rosie the Rosehair tarantula, which was brought to the Whidbey Island Waldorf School last week by David Neel of Creatures Close Up.Kate Poss/staff photosSpiders and snakes are not Francisca Schreier's favorite critters. But they rose in her esteem last Wednesday when a critter company visited her school.Francisca, who is in sixth grade at Whidbey Island Waldorf School, learned first-hand how docile a tarantula can be. Soft, too. Even the snakes didn't seem as scary to her once she learned more about them. David Neel is a Tacoma-area Head Start teacher who brings his animal retinue, including Rosie the tarantula, to schools throughout the state. Tove Danovich, a fifth-grader who visited with the critters, thought it was cool that she could interact with them.I liked the tarantula. She's cute, said Danovich. We got to see a snakeskin that he passed around. He didn't bring in anything dangerous and told a little about each animal. A lot of the boys were disappointed - that nothing was poisonous or dangerous -- but I think they liked the snakes.Going eye to Rosie's eight eyes is a bit disconcerting at first. But she welcomes touch by extending a hairy front leg-like shaking hands--and even spins strands of web from a pair of black fur-covered posts on her hindquarters.It takes her several hours to spin a web, said Neel. She lines the bottom of her aquarium with it. In the wild she would dig a burrow and line it with webbing to catch her prey.Rosie is typical of tarantulas in the pet industry. Neel especially likes her because she enjoys being handled. While she has fangs, she's not keen to use them on a human. Instead she eats worms, crickets and other insects. Neel, whose mother Frances Maxwell is a prize-winning cook on Whidbey Island, has collected critters all his life. As a former owner of a large aquarium shop in Atlanta, Ga., he would host class field trips to the store. When he moved west he became a special education teacher. Now, snakes, spiders and lizards are in his life big time. He's got about 25 critters living at home with him and his wife Mollyshannon, an elementary school teacher. And he has found success working with individual classes, teaching kids that snakes and spiders are helpful creatures and really aren't that creepy. When the the snakes and spiders travel, in a large blue plastic storage bin with breathing holes, they are kept in clear plastic cottage cheese cartons with holes cut in, as well as in pillow cases.Neel pulled out a white knotted pillowcase and inside was a friendly albino gopher snake named Ghost; Neel's preschool students named the pale lemon yellow snake with rusty-colored spots.Ghost must be protected from the sun and could not survive in the wild, Neel explained, pointing out that the small snake can unhinge its jaws to eat a full-sized rat every seven to 10 days. I usually don't name my snakes. They don't come when they're called.Neel often gets his snakes as a result of Humane Society and herpetological society rescues. Sometimes the owners just don't know how to care for the snakes and lizards, and the animals suffer from neglect or abuse. Neel takes charge of his critters' health and keeps meticulous records, and he teaches kids how to care for their classroom and home pets.He will soon have a Webcam set up at home so kids can check in on whatever favorite critter they met at school.For more information contact Creatures Close up at 253-503-0463 or e-mail "

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