PETSCOPE: Using Pet Stores to Increase the Classroom Study of Animal Behavior

PETSCOPE: Using Pet Stores to Increase the Classroom Study of Animal Behavior

Charles I. Abramson,, Jeanine M. Huss, Kristy Wallisch, and Delissa Payne

Oklahoma State University

Scheduled to appear in: In L. Benjamin, B. Nodine, R. Ernst, C. Blair-Broeker (Eds.). Activities handbook for the teaching of psychology, Volume 4. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Abstract

A program is described that uses pet stores to provide training in the study of animal behavior. Pet stores have a number of advantages for student research. First, pet stores carry a range of species suitable for comparative investigations. Second, pet stores are ideal for ethological studies of various species including humans. Third, pet stores do not drain departmental resources. The use of pet stores to provide animal behavior experiences for students is illustrated with two projects.

Concept

The use of animals to demonstrate principles of psychology has been steadily declining over the past 20 years. Our program, called PETSCOPE, builds on the fascination that pets hold for many students and transforms community pet stores into comparative psychology resource centers. Students work in groups or individually and can perform many noninvasive studies of animal behavior. Students can directly observe the similarities and differences among species, develop comparative research skills, and receive practical experience in the study of animal behavior. Petscope projects are ideal for classes in general psychology, comparative psychology, research methods, and experimental psychology. Petscope projects can be readily incorporated into course curriculums as laboratory experiences and/or independent student projects.

Materials Needed

The materials needed are access to a pet store, a working relationship between the pet store manager/owner and instructor, a list of the animals maintained in the pet store, a project plan or worksheet distributed to students (see sample Handouts), and apparatus required to complete the project such as a data sheet, timer, and writing implement. For projects requiring size measurements, it is helpful to photocopy a ruler onto a worksheet so that students will have a ruler readily available.

Instructions

For the Petscope program to be effective a good working relationship between the instructor and pet store manager/owner is crucial. This is necessary because the pet store is a privately owned business, and therefore permission must be sought before students begin class projects. Moreover, pet store personnel and the instructor must address issues such as the possibility of students handling some of the animals (i.e. snakes, birds, lizards, rodents, cats, dogs), creating observation stations in front of animal enclosures, establishing a time for student groups to carry out projects that do not interfere with normal business operations, the availability of first aid, the extent to which pet store staff can assist students with their projects, and the possibility of students manipulating the animals' environment either by feeding or adding "toys" and other stimuli. In addition to the discussion of these issues, pet store personnel should provide the instructor with a list of animals available for study. With this list the instructor is in a better position to direct and plan student research projects, and the student has an opportunity to acquire background information about an animal prior to working with it. We would also recommend that the instructor accompany the students on their first visit so they can be introduced to store personnel.

In addition to developing a good relationship with the pet store, the instructor may want to review behavioral and comparative study methods. Abramson (1994) and Bornstein (1980) provide good introductions. Describing basic research methods to the class will provide helpful guidelines for students as they design projects and analyze data.

Many projects are suitable for a Petscope program. Two are described below. The first is a comparative investigation of habitat, physiology, and behavior of pet store animals and the second is some unobtrusive investigations of fish behavior. For instructors not familiar with the type of projects possible Abramson (1986, 1990, 1996), Brown and Downhower (1988), Cain (1995), and Kneidel (1993), provide many useful examples for both invertebrate and vertebrate student projects.

Project 1: Creating Petscope data cards

The project was inspired by the old Time-Life animal cards familiar to most instructors. In the Time-Life version, each card contained interesting facts about animals such as alligators and jaguars. Our version contains both a library component and an observational/research component. To create Petscope cards students visit the pet store and select animals in which they have an interest. Alternatively, the instructor may decide to focus the students' attention on a few related species such as goldfish, angel fish, and fighting fish. Once the animals are selected, a decision must be made to have the students work as part of a research team or individually. Having made this decision students are assigned to the pet store and begin to create Petscope cards.

The library component will require the student to gather information on classification (class, order, family, genus, species), behavior, related species, range, physiology and anatomy of the animals they select. Students with access to scanners may wish to incorporate visual images into their cards. A useful addition is to include information describing scientists who conduct research with that species. This information would include selected references, a summary of research findings, and address. A benefit of this addition is that students learn about the work of, and perhaps network with, professors in their home institution. Moreover, the library component encourages library use, Internet searches, and discussions with experts such as pet store personnel. We have found that students enjoy helping to decide what information to include in the Petscope cards.

The observation/research component of the Petscope card relies on information gathered directly by students at the pet store and can include information such as descriptive anatomy (e.g., color, length, weight), feeding and mating strategies, growth rate, diet, habitat, size, and popularity.

Once completed, comparisons among the cards can be made on any of the dimensions listed above. Subsequent class discussion topics include the importance and difficulty of classification, the role of evolution and ecology in shaping biological, anatomical and behavioral processes, the influence of pollution and human encroachment on the development of species, and the importance of pets in mental health. When the assignment is completed the cards can be donated to the pet store and displayed, or donated to local Head Start programs and other educational institutions. Handout 1 provides an example of a Petscope card worksheet.

Project 2: The study of fish

Various species of fish are available in pet stores. Students can be divided in small groups and assigned a tank. Suggested areas of investigation are listed below; see Handout 2 for an example of a project.

1. Ethological investigations: Students can observe, describe and compare environments, coloration of animals, ratio of male to female, food gathering strategies, defensive strategies, time allocated to various activities.

2. Learning investigations: Many people have noted that their pet fish swim to the top of the tank when the aquarium lid is lifted or the aquarium light is turned on. Students can use this response to study whether fish respond to stimuli paired with feeding and to see whether time of day or the introduction of novel stimuli inhibit feeding. Students can also observe responses to new situations or novel stimuli.

3. Comparative anatomy: Students can compare development, shape, size, and function of anatomical features such as fins and tails.

4. Social behavior: Students can observe and describe mating behavior, courtship behavior, group interaction, and species recognition. How do the fish react when new fish are placed into the tank? Do they behave differently if the new fish are of a different species?

5. Comparative physiology: Basic observations could include variations in breathing rates based on species, size of fish, or male vs. female fish.

6. Research methods: Depending on the research question asked and the abilities of the students, research methods can range from recording numbers of animals to the creation of behavioral profiles for various species.

Discussion

After conducting a project, students should have a general understanding of the comparative approach and the importance of animal research. Moreover, students will have learned observational and data recording techniques. If Petscope cards are created, students will have exposure to CD-ROM based databases and other library resources. Moreover, they will have developed writing skills and graphic design skills. In sharing information with the class, a student's communication and public speaking skills will also be utilized.

It has been our experience that pet store owners are happy to participate in the Petscope program because of the program's educational value. There is also the perception that the program increases business and expands the customer base. A limitation, however, is that some pet stores have a narrow range of species. In such cases the instructor can restrict the number of species or solicit participation from two pet stores that differ in the type of animal displayed.

Writing component

In addition to creating Petscope cards, other writing assignments could include further research and description of animals from the perspective of home pets. Students can also use their observational skills to chronicle the behavior of family pets and those of their friends.

References and Suggested Readings

Abramson, C. I. (1994). A primer of invertebrate learning: The behavioral perspective. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Abramson, C.I. (1986). Invertebrates in the classroom. Teaching of Psychology, 13, 24-29.

Abramson, C.I., Onstott, T., Edwards, S., & Bowe, K. (1996). Classical-conditioning demon strations for elementary and advanced courses. Teaching of Psychology, 23, 26-30.

Abramson, C.I. (1990). Invertebrate Learning: A Laboratory Manual and Source Book. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.

Bornstein, M. (1980) (Ed.). Comparative methods in psychology. Hillsdale, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Brown, L., & Downhower, J. F. (1988). Analyses in behavioral ecology: A manual for lab and field. Sunderland, MA: Sinauer Associates.

Cain, N. W. (1995). Animal behavior science projects. New York: John Wiley and Sons.

Kneidel, S. S. (1993). Creepy crawlies and the scientific method. Golden, CO: Fulcrum Publishing.

Handout 1: Sample Petscope Card

SCIENTIFIC NAME________________

COMMON NAME(S)_______________

__________________________________ PICTURE

DESCRIPTION (SIZE, COLORATION,

ETC.)_____________________________

________________________________________________________________________

________________________________________________________________________

NOTES ON OBSERVED BEHAVIOR_______________________________________

________________________________________________________________________

________________________________________________________________________

________________________________________________________________________

________________________________________________________________________

________________________________________________________________________

NOTES ON LIBRARY RESEARCH (REFERENCES, LATEST FINDINGS, CURRENT

PROJECTS AND RESEARCHERS)_________________________________________

________________________________________________________________________

________________________________________________________________________

________________________________________________________________________

________________________________________________________________________


Handout 2: Sample Petscope Worksheet

STUDENT WORKSHEET: COMPARATIVE ANATOMY OF FISH

SPECIES STUDIED (SCIENTIFIC AND COMMON NAMES)

__________________________________________________________________

IN THE SPACE BELOW, DRAW YOUR SPECIES. NOTE IMPORTANT CHARACTERISTICS LIKE SIZE, COLOR, ANY RANGE OF COLORS WITHIN SPECIES, DIFFERENCES BETWEEN MALE AND FEMALE FISH, ETC.

OBSERVE AND DESCRIBE VISIBLE FIN AND TAIL DIFFERENCES AND SIMILARITIES BETWEEN YOUR SPECIES AND TWO OTHER SPECIES. ARE FINS AND TAILS THE SAME SIZE AND SHAPE? DO ALL 3 SPECIES SEEM TO USE FINS AND TAILS IN THE SAME WAY?

SPECIES 1 (NAME)

SPECIES 2 (NAME)

SPECIES 3 (NAME)


Dr. Charles I. Abramson
Department of Psychology
116 N. Murray
Stillwater, Ok 74078-3064
(405) 744-7492
via E-Mail: charles.abramson@okstate.edu


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