The annual elementary-school ritual of hatching cute, fluffy chicks isn't, it turns out, quite the harmless fun generations of children thought it was.
After a veterinary hospital found E. coli and salmonella in the droppings of chicks hatched in an Issaquah kindergarten, egg-hatching has been dropped as part of a hands-on science curriculum used by eight Puget Sound-area school districts.
The Highline School District, which produces science kits for itself and seven other districts, discontinued the unit on chicken embryology this fall. Children in 85 kindergarten classes used the kits to hatch chicks last year in the Bainbridge Island, Fife, Highline, Issaquah, Riverview, Snoqualmie Valley, Tukwila and Tumwater school districts.
"Our concern was the safety and care of kids," said Judi Backman, science and math coordinator for the Highline School District.
No children who have used the kits are known to have become ill from E. coli or salmonella enteritidis, a strain of bacteria that can, in rare cases, be fatal.
Although school officials' decision to end the long-popular teaching practice was based strictly on health concerns, the change was sought by a kindergarten mother and an animal-shelter operator initially upset over schools' treatment of the animals.
Kim Mele, the mother, had fond memories of hatching chicks when she was in elementary school. But she began to have misgivings about the practice when her daughter, Samantha, became upset over the plight of the fuzzy birds last spring.
Of the dozen eggs incubated in Samantha's kindergarten class at Cougar Ridge Elementary School in Issaquah, half failed to hatch. One chick, which died as the teacher tried to help it hatch, was unceremoniously disposed of in the trash.
Then there was the problem of finding homes for the five surviving chicks. Samantha was worried because the teacher didn't know where to find homes for the fast-growing birds. Small chicks are in considerable demand, but few families want to keep them when they become full-grown hens or roosters.
The Mele family cared for the chicks over a long weekend and later took them for a longer period while looking for a permanent home.
Susan Michaels, founder of Pasado's Safe Haven near Sultan, agreed to take the chicks, but asked Mele if she would ask school officials to stop the chick-hatching project.
Mele agreed. She was concerned about the lack of homes for the birds, the death of a hatchling while children watched, and the difficulty of ensuring that kindergartners wash their hands after touching the chicks.
Mele and Michaels met with the Cougar Ridge principal, the Issaquah district's assistant superintendent for curriculum, and finally with Backman and the science-kit coordinator in the Highline district.
Highline officials were hesitant to end the program until Michaels showed them a lab report from the Pilchuck Veterinary Hospital showing the presence of E. coli and salmonella enteritidis in droppings from four roosters Mele took to Pasado's. (The fifth chicken died of a nervous-system disorder.)
Backman didn't agree that the hatching program was cruel to the animals or traumatic for children when chicks died.
"I think good teachers, just like good parents, turn that into a learning experience. I can't think that it would be harmful for kids," she said.
The science kits gave teachers suggestions on where to take chicks, including willing homes and feed stores that traditionally have distributed chicks as Easter pets. When teachers have had difficulty finding places to take chicks, Backman said, they have been resourceful in helping each other find solutions.
Michaels said, however, uncounted numbers of chickens have been improperly abandoned by owners desperate to get rid of them. "We get calls from Seattle city parks," she said. "What people are doing is taking these chickens and dumping them in city parks or in what they call the country. They get run over or killed by coyotes."
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), a Norfolk, Va.-based animal-protection group, sent letters to school-nurses associations in Washington and about 40 other states last week, asking them to support an end to chick-hatching projects in the schools.
The PETA letters cited the discovery of dangerous bacteria in the Issaquah roosters, as well as a warning by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about salmonella in chicks and ducklings. The letters also said many chicks die because they are not properly incubated.
PETA educator Jennifer Shane said the group had so far received no responses to the letters, which were sent last week.
The Seattle School District's "inquiry-based" science program in elementary schools does not involve hatching chicks. Program director Elaine Woo said she is not aware of any classes that have hatched chicks during her 20 years with the district.
Keith Ervin's phone message number is 206-464-2105. His e-mail address is email@example.com.