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Ledyard agri-science animals find temporary homes during school closure

Ledyard — Students in the agri-science program at Ledyard High School are preparing to continue their education through distance learning for the foreseeable future, but many of them won't have access to some of their most critical learning tools: the animals.

While faculty members in the horticulture and aquaculture programs are going into the school regularly to make sure their respective setups are running smoothly, the animal science department underwent a mad dash March 13 to make sure its dozens of subjects are taken care of.

Department head and animal science teacher Devon O'Keefe said that during school vacations and snow days, the animals are normally taken care of by a staff member; during summer vacation, she works with area farms to house the larger livestock, and students take the smaller animals home so they can continue being socialized.

She said she had confirmed arrangements with Stonebridge Farm in Andover for the summer, and as the threat of school closures loomed, she had asked if the school could send over the animals a little early. She anticipated doing it the weekend of March 21, and when the district announced March 13 it was closing for at least two weeks, she got an extra livestock trailer from her father to transport the two donkeys, three alpacas, two goats, 17 chickens, five sheep and a bunch of newborn lambs.

"The one good thing is we always have emergency plans just as a town would have emergency plans," O'Keefe said, adding that they were as prepared as they could have been.

Katie Marino, owner of Stonebridge Farm, said she found out the morning of March 13 that the livestock would be coming at 4 p.m., so she took the afternoon off from work to get the farm set up to accommodate the new temporary residents. She housed all the animals last summer and said her two goats came from the agri-science program and were happy to be with their friends again, but the farm had to rearrange the other spaces.

"I think it forced us to reinforce some of the fences we have, so if anything it's making the farm a little more upkept and useful," she said, noting it's been a good learning opportunity as a new farmer.

Marino said the extra animals are a little more work for her and her family, but it's been a good experience overall, especially for her three daughters, who love visiting with the animals.

About 20 small animals — bearded dragons, leopard geckos, a pair of lovebirds with new chicks, rabbits, guinea pigs, ferrets and a chinchilla — also had to be temporarily relocated as the school closed. Animal science teacher Laura Manzi said she had been out of town March 12 and 13 for a wedding and had discussed what might happen in the event of a closure. She also had a handful of foster applications from students who had already handed them in for spring break.

When it was confirmed, she called her class and directed them via speakerphone on what to do to get the animals ready; some went home that Friday under the supervision of O'Keefe, and Manzi went straight to the school that Saturday to see off the rest.

"I was really proud of the students," she said. "They were all volunteering to help with things. When I walked in on Saturday, all of the animals' to-go bags were packed, they had labeled the stuff as I asked, and they did a really good job."

Courtenay Barden, a senior from Norwich, took home Thyme, a rabbit she had brought home over winter break. She said she hadn't planned on taking any animals home over spring break because her rabbit at home had just had a new litter, but she wanted to help out given that everything happened with such short notice.

"When they had the announcement, we had about 20 minutes left of that class, so it was a lot of rushing around to get a lot of the animals' things together for the ones we knew were definitely going within an hour," she said, commending her classmates' work to get everything organized. She took home Thyme that afternoon.

Phoenix Milhomme, a sophomore from Lisbon, is a first-time foster for the department and took home Sophie the chinchilla March 14. They said they had always wanted to take home Sophie, and while the family dogs aren't a fan of the new resident, she likes to run around in the living room while the dogs are outside.

Milhomme said teachers had sent out class resources, but it won't be the same learning from home without direct instruction. Sophie wasn't part of the animal reproduction class because the department doesn't have a male chinchilla, and students won't be able to work with the lovebirds, which went home with Manzi so she could take care of the chicks.

"It's definitely going to change a lot because we're going to be really behind," they said. "Even though we'll pick back up where we left off, everyone's not going to remember what we did ... it's not a good thing for us to be home this long."

Barden, who is taking Manzi's animal diseases course, said a lot of the class materials were already online, but it'll be interesting to see how the rest of the course goes. She said it would probably be horrible for the seniors to spend their last semester in class at home, but it's a learning process for everyone.

The school transitioned to distance learning this week, but Manzi said she and fellow agriculture educators had been connecting to share resources and ideas for teaching such a hands-on subject to students from afar. She said the department was encouraging students to work on their supervised agricultural experience projects when possible, and she made a list of documentaries, books and other materials on related subjects so their downtime could be productive, as well.

O'Keefe, who lives in Marlborough, is at Stonebridge daily to check on the livestock. She said that Fleming's Feed in Preston, where the school gets its feed and bedding, even agreed to go out of its normal route to bring the school's regular deliveries to Andover for the displaced animals.

"It's a lot of teamwork, it's a lot of moving parts and a lot of people who are willing to help us out," she said.

a.hutchinson@theday.com

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