Snakes! Once the mere mention of the word was enough to give Jessica Gonzales, 10, the shivers. The slithery creatures were not to be toyed with, she thought.
But recently Gonzales came face to face with her fears when Crenshaw High School's Classroom Zoo on Wheels program visited the 96th Street Elementary School, bringing a collection of almost 40 different animals for the children.
The students could rub the belly of a California newt, or wrap a Burmese python around their shoulders. They could hold a desert gecko in a palm or pet a Pygmy goat named Meagan. They met rabbits, a duck, a guinea pig, a chicken and a hamster. There was even an odd-looking prehensile-tail skink, a member of the lizard family.
"The snakes looked slimy, and I thought they would bite," Gonzales said. "But then, after I touched one, I felt it had incredible skin. It felt like when you touch a pillow. Very nice."
Gonzales said she learned that snakes are not all dangerous, and some are even fun.
And that is the kind of message Crenshaw High School biology teacher Tammy Bird wanted children to get when she began taking her high school class on the road about a year ago.
"Many young people in urban areas don't get a chance to see these kinds of animals," Bird said. "Some children are amazed to learn that eggs come from chickens. All some think is that they come from cartons you buy in the supermarkets."
In addition to helping the elementary schoolchildren, Bird said the program also strengthens the skills of her students, who are part of Crenshaw High's Teacher Training Magnet.
Much of the work for the Zoo on Wheels is done by Bird's students, from packing and setting up the exhibits to giving lectures on the various animals--the environments they come from, the kinds of foods they eat, the manner in which they reproduce.
"You are really forced to learn your subject matter when you have to teach it," Bird said. "It's not easy to take information and then convert it to a level that stretches from kindergarten to sixth grade. That is when you test your creativity."
Initially, some of the children at the 96th Street school were a bit squeamish about touching the animals, until they saw how comfortable the older high school students were with them. "It didn't take long for them to lose their fear," said Tracy Ferrier, 15. "One kid had five snakes around his neck."
Occasionally, the student teachers were presented with problems, such as trying to explain why some of the cute mice they raise end up as food for the snakes.
There is "nothing like seeing a snake eat a mouse," said Theo Harris, 17. "But it is part of the snakes' natural cycle. It is what they do in their natural environment."
It has been from experiences like Zoo on Wheels that Keeva Waite, 17, discovered that her natural environment may be in a classroom.
"Before I started this program, it seemed to me that all teachers did was fight about money," she said. "Now I know there is much more to teaching. . . . There is something rewarding."
Carol Epting, the principal at 96th Street School, said her students gained much more than just the chance to pet an exotic creature.
"It was a wonderful opportunity for our students to interact with young adults who were great role models for our students," she said. "The greatest value was the human interaction."
Bird, who keeps about 70 animals in her science laboratory at Crenshaw High School, has been invited by several local elementary schools to bring her Zoo on Wheels to their campuses.
And just recently Bird was honored with the Wright Brothers Innovative Teacher Award by the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce and Rockwell International in recognition of her work.
"Kids don't get a chance to go to the desert or tropical rain forests, so we try to bring a little bit of it to them," she said.