For more than 30 years, Homewood-Flossmoor High School students have been able to explore the world of plants and animals through Zoo/Bots.
This extracurricular club, a combination of zoology and botany, has 125 members. It gives students a chance to learn about plants in the H-F greenhouse and how to care for animals that are housed in the animal labs. There’s also a classroom component for seniors.
The discovery comes when the club members handle the reptiles, such as tortoises, bearded dragons and geckos, and birds of all sizes. There’s also an aquarium stocked with fish. The students feed them, clean the cages and do the laundry that comes with cleanup.
It’s one class where a textbook isn’t an essential. The hands-on involvement with the animals is what draws students in.
In the beginning
Teacher Karen Nyberg was a plant lover. When she started as a biology teacher in 1969 she believed her classes needed living things, so plants lined her classroom’s window ledges. There was a 100-gallon fish tank in the science department no one wanted, so Nyberg adopted that.
“The animals came in gradually. In bio class I had gerbils. I started with finches, and I loved them,” Nyberg recalls. Eventually she got a bigger classroom and got hamsters, gerbils, small mammals, rabbits.
It was the start of her Plants and Animals program offered to seniors. Nyberg said the school administration never tried to discourage her but it also didn’t provide a budget, so volunteers Sue Bertram and Peggy Barnthouse helped her raise money for animal food through craft fairs. Dr. Geeta Supram, whose daughter Aarthi was in the program, would buy cages.
Over time, people started leaving their unwanted pets with Nyberg. Plants and Animals became an active program at H-F under her guidance. She called it “a labor of love.” Students volunteered on a regular basis, and would take the animals home on weekends and school breaks.
“The (students) learned respect. They were paying attention to the animals, not pushing your own will on them. And, how to care for them, the responsibility of caring for them on a regular basis,” Nyberg said.
Nyberg also got a sabbatical to attend classes at the University of Illinois to learn how to manage a greenhouse. She came back to H-F and made major improvements to bring the greenhouse up to standards.
When Nyberg retired in 2003, Plants and Animals was an active program at H-F. It was then that staff realized how much time and effort Nyberg was giving to H-F in establishing and nurturing the program.
Chris Stiglic came to H-F as a biology teacher when Nyberg left, but he didn’t step in to the management role of the animal lab until the following year. He continues to teach biology and the senior-level Zoology/Botany (Zoo/Bots) class, as well as serve as faculty sponsor for the Zoo/Bots Club.
He had started an animal program at a Catholic high school but it wasn’t on the scale of the H-F lab. Still, he agreed to step in. The program got a new name and worked to meet the high standards set by Nyberg.
Stiglic admits he’s not as good with plants as Nyberg, but the students have managed to raise some plants that are nourishment for the animals.
He also worked with student Clayton Wassilak who built a hydroponic pond in the greenhouse. It houses turtles and traps their waste and bacteria before cycling the water back for the plants. At one point the tomato plant in the hydroponic bed reached the ceiling Stiglic said.
H-F provides a budget for the animal lab and animal food is ordered on a weekly basis. Student dues for the Zoo/Bots Club also supplement expenses.
“The animals are allowed to be loved,” Stiglic said. “It’s enrichment for the animals to have them taken out on a regular basis.”
“Every weekend our club kids and kids in (the Zoo/Bots) class take home the animals. We train all of our kids on how to handle them and send them with the food they need, and take-home cages,” explained Stiglic.
A new love for animals
Generally, dogs and cats are pets, but some students have discovered that reptiles and birds also can be great pets. Stiglic said allowing students to take the animals home gives them experience caring for an animal and gives the family a chance to decide whether having this type of pet is something they would be interested in.
Jovan Gutierrez of Chicago Heights is a senior officer in the club. He’s been a member for four years and says his fascination with animals was piqued when he joined the Zoo/Bots Club as a freshman.
He showed off a blue-tongued skink in the H-F collection. Gutierrez described it as “a reptile much like a lizard but the skin is like a snake.” His family was okay with him bringing animals home, and today he owns a bearded dragon.
“I’m interested in paleontology and stuff. I’m going to major in an animal related subject in college,” he said.
Several students interviewed by the Chronicle also said Zoo/Bots helped them look at a career that deals with animals.
In addition, seniors enrolled in a Zoo/Bots class also focus on the environment. During the fall semester, the students worked on journals with photos and sketches from field trips to the Morton Arboretum and Izaak Walton Preserve in Homewood where they studied different eco-systems.
Bella’s a favorite
One of the most popular animals in the collection is Bella, the red feathered macaw owned by Sue Bertram, who has loaned the 20-year-old bird to Zoo/Bots.
After her daughter, Jacki, was in Plants and Animals, Bertram befriended Nyberg and has stayed active with the group. She calls herself the unofficial room mom and has stayed in touch with many H-F graduates who were in the animal lab.
Bertram recently got another macaw for the class, Majestic Blue, who couldn’t stay with its owner. The original class macaw, Max, is now 58 years old and owned by Bill Ryan, a former student of Nyberg’s.
The wings are clipped so the birds can’t fly, but they do love to be around people.
Bertram, who lives near Flossmoor Community Church, perches Bella on a tree in her yard so the preschoolers in the church program can see her. She’ll also walk the bird over so the kids can see Bella up close.
“They have such big personalities,” Bertram says of the birds native to Central and South America. “Bella is calm, but Blue will go ‘Hi!’ and asked ‘What are you doing?’ and he’ll ask you to come near him,” Bertram said.