A corn snake on Friday was draped on 14-year-old Nadia Mims, an eighth grader at Jefferson Middle School.
She is responsible for the care of Sally, the corn snake.
"Today I'm just giving her lovin'," Nadia said.
Nadia is also responsible for Cleo, a ball python.
They won't harm anyone, Nadia said.
"They're really cute and super cuddly and friendly," Nadia said of the snakes in her care.
Those two reptiles are part of what is called the Jefferson Middle School Zoo, with 56 animals. The zoo is overseen by Columbia Public Schools science coordinator Mike Szydlowski. It started at the beginning of the school year.
Jefferson has a focus on science, technology, engineering, the arts and math, or STEAM education.
There were just 55 animals in the zoo on Friday, Szydlowski said. A guinea pig was at the veterinarian.
"We're almost like an animal rescue now," Szydlowski said.
Besides the snakes, there are several varieties of lizards, turtles, guinea pigs, birds and fish.
"There's research that shows when kids take care of any living thing, they become empathetic to all living things," Szydlowski said.
The students calm down when they're among the animals, he said.
Students also learn about biology, he said.
"The biggest benefit is for the students' mental health," he said.
Eighth grader Patrick Madigan was reunited with a snake from his time at Mill Creek Elementary School.
"There's a snake here I remember from second grade," he said. The snake's name is Cheeto.
At Mill Creek, Patrick said the snake escaped one time and frightened a kindergartner who encountered Cheeto on the stairs.
He said he was surprised to see Cheeto at his middle school.
There are 50 student zookeepers, Szydlowski said. Each zookeeper has a couple of animals to care for, and every animal has a couple of zookeepers in case there are student absences because of COVID-19.
None of the animals have had COVID as far as he knows, he said.
Students in the RISE classroom provide food and water for the animals, said RISE teacher Jenny Howard. RISE stands for Reaching Independence through Structured Education. It's part of the special services department at Columbia Public Schools, for students with special needs.
The RISE students work together in the zoo with students in regular classrooms, Howard said.
"It's a really great bridge to the regular student population," Howard said.
Her students can tell if an animal isn't behaving as it normally does, a potential sign of illness, she said.
Eighth grader David Tsedha, 14, was wearing Snuggles, a bearded dragon lizard, on his shirt.
"They like worms and fruit and water," David said of the lizard's favorites.
What does he like about the lizard?
"I like their color," he said.
Eighth grader Julianna Basi, 14, said she likes the birds, which she feeds every morning.
"I do like animals," Julianna said. "I like other kinds of stuff, like singing."
Szydlowski said one day, he forgot to replace the clips on top of Cleo's tank.
"When I came in the next morning, the snake wasn't there," he said of the ball python.
Cleo is too large to slip under doors, so it was located quickly, he said.
Other snakes sometimes get stuck in unusual spaces, he said.
"They get into some mischief," he said of the animals.
The animals and their enclosures have been donated, but the zoo costs about $200 a month to run, considering food and occasional visits to the vet, Szydlowski said.
It hasn't been a problem so far, he said.
"Our parents and the community have been great" with donations, Szydlowski said.
This article originally appeared on Columbia Daily Tribune: RISE students care for 56 Jefferson Middle School Zoo animals