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Thousands of chicks are living in elementary school classrooms across the United States. Each spring, teachers incubate eggs under warming lamps until they hatch as students observe the baby birds to learn about the life cycle. As a former kindergarten teacher, I have seen the unexpected animal cruelty and miseducation implicit in this seemingly joyful classroom tradition.

During my time teaching, in a nearby classroom, a student playing with a chick accidentally squeezed the bird so hard that its intestines were expelled through its bottom. As the traumatized bird stumbled around, its intestines dragged behind.

A parent happened to enter the classroom and offered to help. Not knowing what else to do, the teacher entrusted the bird to the man, and he left the school with the chick in hand. The next day, someone asked the man what he had done with the bird. He said — in front of children — that he threw it into a dumpster.

Heartbreaking outcomes like this are not uncommon in chick-hatching projects. Overworked teachers often make mistakes in the incubation process that lead to the chicks suffering deformities and even death, which occurred repeatedly in the school where I taught. Reports from other schools describe employees flushing deformed chicks down the toilet.

Surviving birds often face a grim fate, too. While some are taken in by local families or sanctuaries, many are slaughtered, returned to suppliers (to be culled) or sent to poultry markets.

Mary Britton Clouse, who cofounded a Minnesota animal sanctuary called Chicken Run Rescue, has experienced the fallout of these projects for decades. Every year for the past 23 years, Britton Clouse has received requests for help from teachers, parents and students struggling to care for classroom hatchlings or concerned about their fate.

"There are real individual birds who suffer, and kids become confused and damaged by what they learn," she said. "Poor incubation and handling results in injured, deformed or dead chicks to be disposed of in any convenient way. The ones who survive come into the world with no mother and no home, given away like door prizes to unwitting children and unwilling parents."

Hatching projects not only pose threats to chicks, but also to the human children who participate in them. Birds carrying salmonella and E. coli can put children at risk for infection. While such infections from exposure to live birds are uncommon, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that children are more likely than adults to become ill from exposure to germs that certain animals carry, and suggests that children under 5 should avoid contact with chicks.

The broader risk to children is what chick-hatching projects teach them. These projects convey that thinking and feeling animals — even babies — are disposable.

"Ethical questions are raised when unwanted animals are brought into this world, diminishing our sense of the inherent value of the living creature. The positive lesson that can come from observing and respecting normal parenting of adult birds for their future offspring is lost. In these school hatching projects, any sense of parent birds carefully preparing nests and tending their future babies is lost," F. Barbara Orlans, a former senior research fellow at Georgetown University's Kennedy Institute of Ethics, has said.

Chick-hatching projects also impart misconceptions about the life cycle. These projects suggest that chicks come from — and can thrive in — a mechanized environment while failing to represent the crucial role that a mother's exacting care plays in animal development.

Today, some 70 years after the advent of classroom chick-hatching projects, widespread public criticism is emerging. In 2019, a member of the New York Assembly proposed a bill to ban the use of animals in hatching projects in schools statewide. An online petition to end classroom hatching projects boasts more than 75,000 signatures.

Some schools are taking matters into their own hands and implementing alternative curriculums. Observing live camera feeds of wild nesting birds is one example of an ethical approach to teaching animal development.

If there is one thing I learned about children as a teacher, it is that they possess a pure and unyielding love for animals. When we choose instructional tools that harm animals, we undercut the very values of our students and lose opportunities to cultivate their compassion. By abandoning chick-hatching projects, we can foster children's love for animals, prevent animal cruelty and improve the quality of education in our schools.

"The objective should be a lesson in the beauty and wisdom of animals, taking responsibility for their well-being, and nurturing empathy. That is what the world needs now," Britton Clouse said.

Julie Knopp is a former public school teacher. She serves on the board of Compassionate Action for Animals in Minneapolis.