Jacksonville 1st-graders foster animals in unconventional classroom

Mandarin Oaks Elementary teacher says children learn compassion, caring

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – A Jacksonville first-grade teacher has brought her love for animals into her classroom -- literally.

Ana Andenmatten's Mandarin Oaks Elementary class takes in shelter animals that would otherwise be euthanized and finds them forever homes.

Andenmatten said the unconventional approach turns fostering animals into life lessons for her students.

"I think that teaching about animals teaches compassion towards people,” Andenmatten said. “I want them to be happy with themselves. They're showing their love for another."

Andenmatten has permission from the school's principal to have the animals in her class and gets approval from parents and information on any allergies. 

Andenmatten worked in a veterinarian's office for four years while getting her teaching degree in college. 

She founded "Ana's Angels" and fosters pets from shelters in rural areas like Bradford, Clay and Putnam counties.

Among the animals the class has taken in is a hedgehog that has become a permanent pet for the children. They even built him a home outside the class, complete with a garden.

"We built it with bricks, and then we put his cage in the bricks,” student Gracelynn Wilson said.

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The children are learning all about Hedgy, like the fact that he's nocturnal, which means he sleeps during the day and plays at night.

A puppy named Pippin is also part of the class, temporarily. He was in a shelter with a paw deformity and no one wanted to adopt him, so the class has been fostering him.

"He's cute, and I like his whiskers,” student Ayden Johnson said.

The class recently got some good news: Pippin found a new home. Before Pippin, the class fostered a cat who gave birth to several kittens during Hurricane Irma.

"I told the kids what was going on,” Andenmatten said. “The kittens nursed in the back and the kids would go read to her. All of those kittens got adopted -- one to a Jaguars player (Guard AJ Cann).”

Andenmatten admits that sometimes, the kids get attached to the foster animals.

"That's the hard part about fostering is that you have to let go,” Andenmatten said. “There's always another one that needs home."

Next, they'll be hatching chicks in an incubator. 

Andenmatten said the children will be learning about more than just life cycles. 

"We're learning something that's bigger than them,” she said. “They're helping others, and I think that's the best lesson they can have."