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Students allege animal abuse at Petaluma High School

Published: Thursday, May 15, 2014 at 7:41 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, May 15, 2014 at 7:41 a.m.

A series of videos showing Petaluma High School students killing rodents in brutal ways has hundreds of observers calling for the closure of the school's Petaluma Wildlife Museum.

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The student who shot videos of the rats being killed inhumanely saved this one from the Petaluma Wildlife Museum, which she named Dewie and made the focus of her Instagram account, where she first posted the videos.

The videos were taken surreptitiously by a student horrified by the treatment of the mice and rats, which are used as food for the museum's reptiles. She posted them along with several photos in an online gallery, leading to an online petition to shut down the Petaluma Wildlife Museum that has now gathered more than 900 signatures.

In one video, a boy is seen standing next to a large bin, holding a rat by its tail. “You may not want to watch this,” a bystander says. A girl says, “I don't want to see.” The camera is lifted just in time to see the boy bludgeon the animal against the bin. The rat twitches as it hangs by its tail.

Another short video shows a girl pelting a rat against the museum's wall.

The student posting the images, whose name is being withheld by the Argus-Courier, claims she has witnessed such abuse of the rats over the past four years. The videos and photos were uploaded to Dropbox in December of last year.

One month later they were presented as evidence in a complaint against the museum, which the Petaluma Animal Shelter responded to.

Senior Animal Control Officer Mark Scott said an officer visited the museum on Jan. 23 and issued a request for the museum to comply with American Veterinary Medical Association, or AVMA, guidelines for euthanasia within 120 days.

The animal control officer saw no abuse during his visit, and observed conditions he considered to be good. Scott said the officer spoke with Dan Famini, a museum board member and veterinarian who assists the museum with animal care, who said that the students were not trained to kill rats in the manner the videos depicted.

The officer requested that the museum use an industry-approved CO2 machine for the euthanasia of rats.

Prior to being contacted by animal control in January, supervising teacher Kim Arntz and volunteer students in her Museum Management class reportedly utilized “cervical dislocation” – essentially, breaking the rodents' spines – to euthanize the feeder animals.

Students from her class described putting rats into bins of dry ice until the CO2 levels caused them to pass out. Then the students used their hands to snap the animals' spines. Finally, they were put into a freezer and then later thawed out in warm water for use as food.

AVMA guidelines state that when properly performed, cervical dislocation is a humane way to euthanize mice and rats weighing less than 200 grams. The guidelines also state that cervical dislocation requires “mastering technical skills to ensure loss of consciousness is rapidly induced.”

Arntz, who has a degree in agricultural science but no specific certification for working with animals, said the students volunteer to perform the euthanasia.

“Mostly I rely on the students who have experience,” Arntz said. “Many students don't want to participate in that experience, and I don't expect them to. Students currently involved with (euthanasia) have learned from other people outside of the school. We have a conversation about feeder rodents and insects, but it's not taught as part of the curriculum.”

Arntz said the students shown abusing rats in the online videos were suspended and removed from the class.

When asked how the abuse could have happened without her knowledge, Arntz said her job as supervisor involves moving from place to place in the museum during a 100-minute class period. With 30 students and many more visitors, she said, there's often “a significant amount of things going on at once.”

Arntz added that she can't speak to what happens over the weekends, when she's not present at the museum and student run the facility and have access to feeder rats along with the other animals.

Scott said the museum's CO2 chamber was installed on April 24, and it undergoes monthly checks to ensure that it's calibrated properly. Museum supervisors and animal control officers will now hold training sessions each fall and spring semester for students who want to participate in euthanasia.

Between January's animal control complaint and the first CO2 chamber training on May 20, Arntz said students have not been allowed to perform euthanasia on the rats.

But the student who initially uploaded the videos said that the mistreatment of feeder rodents did not end after the visit from animal control in January.

She said the most recent incident occurred two weeks ago during class, when a student killed young rats by hitting them on tables, and then proceeded to throw the bodies at another student.

Arntz said she is not aware of such an incident.

“I have disciplined students for far less than that,” Arntz said. “That is horrific in my opinion. I would not allow that.”

Another student, who was involved with the class last year, supported allegations of the mistreatment of rats during school. She said she witnessed a rat's head being smashed against a concrete stair.

“Rats were smacked against the staircase and rocks most often,” the student wrote in an email, “although I did see a few people simply smash them on the ground.”

Three students selected by the school to speak about the Museum Management class said that Arntz is an animal lover who would not harm any creature. They said they were not aware of any videos of animal abuse.

Lori Glenn, president of the museum's board of directors, said the museum board met last Friday in light of the emergence of an online petition asking Gov. Jerry Brown to shut down the museum. A link to the photos and videos is included in the online petition, filed by a Pittsburgh, Penn. resident at change.org/petitions/jerry-brown-shut-down-the-petaluma-wildlife-museum.

Glenn said the petition's author was “very misguided,” but she did confirm that the videos were taken at the museum.

“We're doing our best to make sure that this never happens again,” Glenn said. “I have tremendous respect for Kim Arntz. It's sad that this happened under our watch, but we don't condone that type of behavior.”

Ultimately, Glenn said, the museum could end the rodent breeding program and go back to using frozen rats to feed the reptiles.

“If that would remove this cloud over the museum, then that's what I'll do,” she said.

Located on the southwest corner of Petaluma High School's campus, the museum touts a unique program: It's entirely student-run, under the supervision of a teacher and a veterinarian.

High school students can take elective courses such as Wildlife Management or Museum Management at the museum, which focus on education in wildlife biology, animal husbandry and museum operations.

This is not the first problem the Petaluma Wildlife Museum has faced. The former teacher advisor, Marsi Wier, was accused in 2010 of mismanaging thousands of dollars in museum funds, spending the money on nail salons, child care and other personal expenses.

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