It started in 2008 with the arrival of Fr. Damien Giap – a chain link fence, a bare-bones, tin-roof shed and a few rabbits that were a real hit with the students at St. John the Baptist School in Costa Mesa.
FR. DAMIEN GIAP, SCHOOL RECTOR, LAUGHS WITH ST. JOHN THE BAPTIST STUDENTS WHILE HOLDING MALLOW THE RABBIT. PHOTOS BY DREW KELLEY/DIOCESE OF ORANGE
Fr. Damien, the school’s new rector at the time, was an animal lover and had many pets. He felt they made him more relatable and more accessible to his students.
“Kids are always drawn to animals,” he said. “Otherwise, I’m just this old guy trying to teach them,” he added with a laugh.
A LEOPARD GECKO FINDS A PLACE TO SIT ON MARCH 31 AT ST. JOHN THE BAPTIST SCHOOL.
The seed then sprouted wings, so to speak. In 2021, the graduating class held fundraisers throughout the year and raised enough money to pay for new, well equipped sheds. Volunteers built them with donated wood. The cages on the inside were courtesy of an Eagle Scout project.
VOLUNTEER “ZOOKEEPER” ANNE MARIE LAU HOLDS UP A CHINCHILLA ON MARCH 31 AT ST. JOHN THE BAPTIST SCHOOL CAMPUS.
The following year, the Class of 2022 gifted the school with a large shed to house tortoises.
Additionally, there are hens, chinchillas, hamsters, tarantulas, snakes and a leopard gecko all living on the school campus. The reptiles’ habitat is outfitted with electricity to accommodate heat lamps.
The main caretakers are husband and wife, Tom Devlin and Anne Marie Lau, parents of former students who first became involved back in 2021 due to one of their daughter’s love of rabbits. Fr. Damien said they were the masterminds behind the project and even though their daughters have booth graduated, they continue to come to campus five times a week to feed and care for the animals.
“I come on Mondays, Wednesday and Fridays so the kids can enjoy the animals during recess and lunch time,” said Lau. “And then Saturday and Sunday too. I
really enjoy it.”
Devlin is consistently impressed by the way Fr. Damien incorporates the animals into his lesson plans.
“On those afternoon days after the kids have been playing outside and have had lunch and may not be paying much attention, he comes in with the latest exotic animal and the whole class wakes up,” Devlin said.
About half the animals were donated by school families who could no longer take care of them.
“So now the animal is here, and the child can come see it,” added Devlin.
Fr. Damien also “loans out” the animals to students and their families during school vacations.
“The beautiful animals direct us to the Creator and in their beauty, I see the fingerprints of God the Father,” explained Fr. Damien. “Just like I need the Eucharist for nourishment because it’s the bread of life – I feed the animals pellets and hay to nourish them.”
By the looks of things, Fr. Damien’s “little zoo” as he likes to call it, is a magnet for students, just as much and if not more than the basketball hoops and climbing structure that are also on campus.
“All the kids love the animals here,” said eighth-grader Kiera Spencer, during one of her recess visits to the animals.
She’s graduating soon and expressed how much she will miss them.
“But I live like 4 minutes from here, so I know I’m going to come back and visit them,” she said.
Fr. Damien gave a simple reason for this strong connection between his students and his animals.
“We are called to be the stewards of the earth,” he said.