Larry LaRue

Larry LaRue: It’s time to go back to school for Tacoma kids — and classroom turtles

Since 2011, Jennifer Streun’s first-grade class at Whittier Elementary in Fircrest has had one extra duty during the school’s occasional fire drills.

Lucia. She has to be carried out when students evacuate the classroom.

A bike-helmet-size red-eared slider, Lucia was originally brought to Streun by the parent of a student who happened to be part of a turtle-and-tortoise rescue group.

“She came with a large tank, and the children loved to watch her,” Streun said. “She’ll come out of the tank and walk around the class at times. There are rules. After touching her, we always wash our hands.

“I’ve had former students come back to visit, and they usually visit Lucia, not me.”

For the past three summers, Streun has spent much of her time in Alaska. Lucia isn’t much of a traveler, so she stays behind.

Students volunteer to watch her. Streun picks a child whose family is agreeable to keeping a turtle; then she takes Lucia, her tank and instructions to their home and sets it up for them.

This week, Streun is getting her classroom set up for the new year — and that means Lucia has come back to school.

At Whittier, she’s not alone.

“Within a year of my getting Lucia, three or four other teachers got rescue turtles, too,” Streun said.

The Tacoma School District leaves decisions about animals in the classroom to the discretion of building principals. At Whittier, that’s Donna Basil.

“I inherited these turtles when I arrived,” Basil said, laughing. “The kids love them. They’re like family.”

Kindergarten teacher Lori Gallo adopted a slider named Herman, took him home for the summer last year and promptly lost him.

“He was gone for a week, and I was sure he was gone for good,” Gallo said. “My husband cleaned his tank — which is huge — and put it in the driveway to dry. When he went back to bring it in, Herman was standing next to it.”

Among his attributes, Herman is a people-person turtle. When children approach his tank, he swims over to greet them. Before class, Gallo lets Herman out, and he follows her around the classroom.

“He’s a delightful pet,” she said.

However, he does like the occasional wild turtle adventure.

“Last spring, we had a grandmother visiting and she and her granddaughter went to the restroom,” Gallo said. “As they were coming out, I heard a scream. It was Herman. I didn’t realize he was out ...”

Jamin Borg is a fifth-grade teacher at Whittier, and had his classroom pet — an Asian Reeves turtle named Bubbles — for three years.

“They can live 50 to 60 years, and I was told she was probably in her mid-20s,” Borg said. “She had her own personality, and she’d eat just about anything. I shipped her out to families the last three summers.”

Though turtles are marvelous swimmers, they also like to lie on rocks or logs in the sun, or beneath sun lamps above their tank.

The family that took on Bubbles this summer had a tank filled with rocks and fine sunning areas. They also tossed in a few dozen goldfish. Bubbles enjoyed their company when he wasn’t eating them.

“The family moved some rocks around and Bubbles was apparently chasing a goldfish and knocked a rock loose and it came down and pinned her,” Borg said. “She drowned. It was an accident, and the family felt terrible.

“They asked if they could bury her, and I said, ‘Of course.’ Bubbles went to the garden.”

Borg admitted something that surprised him. He misses his turtle, and will ask the rescue group for another.

Streun’s new first-grade class will meet Lucia on their first day of school Sept. 3.

“I always take her out and introduce her,” Streun said. “A few children are afraid of her, but most like her immediately. They’ll come up to the tank and watch.

“Lucia’s first year, I had a little girl who would go talk to her. She’d say things at the turtle tank that she felt might not be appropriate to tell the teacher, but in a voice loud enough for me to hear.”