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APS says ‘neigh’ to large animals ahead of Career Center expansion

When “Rocket” — the last goat at the Arlington Career Center — died in August, the large animal component of the school’s Animal Sciences program effectively died with it.

Historically, the school has kept a menagerie of animals for students interested in pursuing careers in animal care and veterinary science, including a miniature horse, goats, cats, dogs, turtles and birds. Today, the program serves about 120 students.

Since the deaths of “Rocket” in 2021 and the miniature horse “Snickers” in 2020, however, Arlington Public Schools administrators have denied requests to adopt new large animals.

APS says this is because it is updating the Animal Science program as part of the planned renovations to the Career Center. Farm animals will no longer figure into the program because they are not required to teach the four courses that will be offered: Small Animal Care I and II and Veterinary Science I and II.

“We are in the planning process to modernize the Small Animal Science and Veterinary Science lab to ensure the lab mirrors local industry facilities,” APS spokesman Frank Bellavia said in a statement. “Students will continue to learn about and care for small animals in a modern lab that reflects industry-based standards and practices.”

The new space will feature improved work areas for students and staff and better housing, grooming stations and exam areas for animals, he said.

But students are petitioning APS and pleading with the School Board to keep large animals. A petition that started last year has regained steam and, as of this morning, has just shy of 2,600 signatures.

“The lack of farm animals would take away the experience that students would need to prepare them for going into college,” writes Washington-Liberty High School student Ellen Boling in the petition. “It could also lower the interest of incoming students in the course, which would result in fewer people to care for the animals.”

W-L senior Sean Bender-Prouty told the School Board in the fall that farm animals are critical for college readiness. He said the future Career Center redevelopment plans are hurting the students currently in the program.

“The potential loss of that space in the future is being used to deny students access to large animals now,” he said during the Oct. 14 meeting. “If you decide to redevelop the site and take away our green space, students may be permanently denied the opportunity to gain necessary experience with large animals.”

Bender-Prouty’s prediction has been a few years in the making. Officials have mulled ending the large animal component of the program since 2019, when it moved eight trailers onto the animals’ grazing space to accommodate an influx of students. This prompted APS to “reimagine that program for a more urban setting,” Bellavia said at the time.

The decision mystifies Animal Science instructor Scott Lockhart, who says large animals gain students entry to a job sector that is booming, given the shortage of large animal vets in the U.S.

“The number of jobs and pathways is being reduced tremendously,” Lockhart tells ARLnow. “We’ve always taken a wide view of animal sciences and now we’re reducing that to small animal care. It does have an impact on students and what we’re trying to prepare them for.”

Large animals also made the program worthy of being recognized as one of three exemplar Career and Technical education programs by the state in 2011, he points out. State agricultural education specialists, veterinarians, veterinary technicians, zookeepers and researchers have all told him removing farm animals is a mistake.

“It’s frustrating they won’t listen to agricultural specialists in the education field and they won’t listen to the professionals in the field,” Lockhart said. “And they don’t listen to the staff who built the program and made it exemplar-related.”

Bellavia says APS has listened to professionals — in its decision not to adopt new goats. APS consulted an expert who said goats need at least one acre of grazing space, which the animals would not have amid construction at the revamped Career Center.

“Staff continues to work to provide work-based learning opportunities for the students interested in working with farm animals,” he said. “Work-based learning has the added benefit of students working in the industry with industry professionals.”

Lockhart says he has yet to see learning opportunities with farm animals materialize.

Not all students who took the courses pursued careers in veterinary sciences, but many still appreciated the large animal component of the program, ARLnow was told.

“How many counties have a program where you get to work with animals every single day?” said John Putnam, who is now a freshman at the University of Michigan.

When he was a student, the herd of livestock included a pony and two goats. His brother took the courses and his sister intends to, too. He was also there when students began petitioning to keep the large animals.

“It’s something that will keep recurring until [APS] get their way, which is really sad, but I’m not surprised,” he said.

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