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NOW HOW DO YOU UNWRAP THIS?: 15-year-old Shaun Grimm of Jeffersonville enjoys a little up-close-and-personal time with a boa constrictor during a BOCES’ rainforest class.

BOCES Creates Live Rainforest

By Ted Waddell
LIBERTY — May 30, 2000 -- If you think rainforests are limited to South America and other far distant parts of the globe, think again, as there’s a rainforest right next door at the Sullivan County Board of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES) in Liberty.
Inhabited by such creatures as “Big Daddy,” a spectacled cayman from Central and South America; “Mr. Snappy,” a native snapping turtle from Callicoon; “Igor,” a common iguana indigenous to Central and South America; “Spanky,” a water dragon from Southeast Asia; and a tokay ghekko from the same area called “Mr. Blue,” the critters help special kids at the local BOCES learn to love and care for other living things.
Other animals in the 7th-8th grade classroom include a rose-haired tarantula, a savannah monitor lizard from equatorial Africa, three tree boas imported last summer from the rainforests of Guyana, a yellow-foot turtle from the rainforests of South America and a couple of snapping turtles that were rescued as hatchlings while they where attempting to cross Route 209 near Wurtsboro. Instead of winding up as squashing turtles, the local snappers are now cared for by the BOCES kids.
In addition, the BOCES “rainforest room” features two species of cockroaches: Madagascan hissing cockroaches and Cuban (deathshead) cockroaches. The students also look after four boas from Colombia, South America.
The Sullivan County BOCES rainforest room is the brainchild of special education teacher Peter Watson, who started to transform his classroom into a model of a “rainforest” about five years ago. He has been teaching at the local BOCES for seven years. Watson has kept animals since he was a kid, and after “graduating from a garden snake to pythons” as a teenager, he now has about 50 boas at home.
“We started out by making the ceiling in the classroom a rainforest canopy,” he said. “Then we began to bring in more and more animals. Over the years, it’s evolved to where we incorporate the rainforest idea in our teaching about the biological sciences.”
A couple of years ago, Watson was joined by teaching assistant Jane Donohue, both in the classroom and as co-coach of the local BOCES award-winning powerlifting team.
“We think it helps the kids deal with something other than themselves,” said Donohue. “This is our family, and the animals are part of it. It’s an important program, because the kids learn to love something other than themselves. The kids are very nurturing toward the animals.
“We’re all unique and we’re all different,” she added. “I think that’s why we all like the animals. It’s because they’re so different.”
According to Watson, most of the animals cared for in the rainforest room were donated by Michael Hano, past president of the New York Herpetological Society. Others were donated by owners who could no longer care for their animals, while some were rescued from abusive situations.
“Aside from the educational aspects of learning about the animals, our students can experience things they would normally only see on television or read about in books,” said Watson.
“The kids have learned a lot about gentleness,” he added.
As Watson gingerly hauled “Big Daddy,” from the classroom’s 500-gallon tank, 14-year-old Daniel Houghtaling, an 8th grade student from Tri-Valley Central School, took a moment from warily watching the cayman to talk about the rainforest.
“I like it, but the snakes scare me a little,” he said. “If the cayman leaves me alone, I leave him alone.”
What about the giant hissing cockroaches?
“Forget ‘em, I hate ‘em,” he said.
Asked what he has learned from taking care of the animals in the innovative rainforest program at the Sullivan County BOCES, Houghtaling added, “If you treat them good, they treat you good.”
Hector Torres, a 13-year-old 8th grader from Fallsburg Central School, said he’s learned to “like and respect” the animals but still is a “little awed” by the razor-toothed cayman.
“We hold them, feed them and clean their cages,” added 15-year-old Shaun Grimm, an 8th grader from Jeffersonville-Youngsville. “We learn all about their habitats.”


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