Six months into their premiere, Bonnie and Pearl are still the most popular act at Job Lane School.
That’s impressive, especially since each is about 10 inches long and can’t see what’s in front of her nose.
Bonnie and Pearl are guinea pigs who reside in a spacious cage in the office of Audrey Jackson, first-year school counselor at Lane.
Not only are the animals friendly and cute, but their behavior serves as models for solving challenges and dilemmas that are significant concerns to many children in grades 3, 4, and 5, Jackson said.
Jackson, who grew up in Vermont, said she always loved animals, so she was receptive to the idea of adding to Lane School’s population of creatures in the classrooms and the Science Corner. She said school staff and BEST/PTO (Bedford Elementary Schools Together) volunteers invested a lot of thought in the optimum species – animals whose health would not be compromised by frequent contact with children, who aren’t the source of a lot of allergies, who are not nocturnal.
Guinea pigs were the answer, and the source was the non-profit Guinea Pig Sanctuary in Salisbury.
Bonnie and Pearl opened to rave reviews on Oct. 12. Their cage, stationed in Jackson’s office, is like a kingdom, with places to explore and hide. Parents donate food and other supplies and there’s a routine for regular cleaning involving Jackson, students, and some volunteers.
“They’ve become a little spoiled because kids feed them what they love – lettuce is their favorite,” said Jackson, adding, “When they hear a plastic bag opening, they get so excited.” She noted that “they like to take little naps,” and “Bonnie has the big personality; we think that Pearl is looking for a secret tunnel.”
The folks at the sanctuary said Bonnie and Pearl are sisters, Jackson reported. They’re the best of friends most of the time though “occasionally they squeal at each other and run around.”
The guinea pigs remain in school over the weekends; families host them over vacation weeks and longer breaks. “That’s an experience without a long-term commitment,” Jackson said.
Bonnie and Pearl play significant roles in Jackson’s work with students. For example, they illustrate the difference between thought and reality.
Guinea pigs have been prey for eons, so when someone reaches for them in their cage, they instinctively shy away, the counselor tells the children. “But when you hold them in your lap, they’re perfectly happy and fine.”
This resonates with kids who are battling anxiety, she said, whether in anticipation of public speaking, meeting someone new, or MCAS or other exams. It’s thought compared to reality, Jackson said; “there’s a natural negative reaction, and then, like a guinea pig in your lap, the reality isn’t so bad.”
There’s another useful metaphor, Jackson explained. A guinea pig’s vision is peripheral, so they can’t see directly in front of their nose and mouth. “Their eyes aren’t positioned to see what they eat,” so they sometimes nibble the hand that feeds them – out of curiosity, not malice.
Similarly, “Sometimes something unexpected happens to you,” Jackson said. “But we can make sense of it. There’s a reason.”
The guinea pig pair also provides a routine for students who benefit from having a regular responsibility, she said.
And then there’s “the calm that comes over a child holding a guinea pig.” Students show up at scheduled or unscheduled times to hold them, she said.
“All counselors at Lane are phenomenal, and using animal-assisted intervention is becoming more recognized and efficacious in a therapeutic setting,” observed one parent volunteer. “There’s something about having a guinea pig on your lap. It makes the child feel more relaxed; it’s not just a classroom pet.”
Fourth-grader Noa Reimer stopped by to spend a few minutes holding Bonnie and Pearl, feeding them tiny lettuce leaves. “They like being with people,” she said. Noa listed daily tasks she and other students address: provide fresh hay and water, and “always make sure they have something to chew,” which Jackson explained retards excessive tooth growth. Regular, thorough cage cleaning is handled by adults, Jackson noted.
The project has been so successful that there are plans to at least foster and perhaps adopt two more guinea pigs. Soon Bonnie and Pearl will revisit the sanctuary to interact with guinea pigs there and see if there is any compatibility. (“Speed dating,” Jackson said with a smile.) “We hope to have kids observe and engage how the four guinea pigs interact at certain times, to tie into social skills,” she explained.
Jackson also is trying to acquire a rolling cart so she can deliver Bonnie and Pearl to individual classrooms, increasing student exposure. “We don’t want them to be overworked, but they’re pretty chill,” Jackson said, adding, “And I’ve gotten to know their body language.”
There’s also a new book in the works, modeled after “Philomena’s New Glasses” by Brenna Maloney. Jackson and several students are writing about “how people need different things at school,” and the stories bring to life not only Bonnie and Pearl but also the turtles, snakes, fish, and chicks. The message: “We all need different things.”