Chef Camille Eichorn promotes an open-door policy in her culinary arts classroom at the Lawrence College and Career Center. That’s mostly in the figurative sense, though. After all, her classroom is home to two bearded dragons, Da Vinci and Mucha, and they mustn’t leave without a proper escort.
For more than a year, Da Vinci has been pampered, cuddled and cared for by Eichorn and her students at the alternative educational setting at 29th and Haskell Avenue. The center serves 10th through 12th graders within Lawrence Public Schools. Mucha joined Eichorn’s classroom in the fall.
Both reptiles were donated after former students moved away and couldn’t take them along, leading Eichorn to earn a playful nickname — Mother of Dragons — inspired by the “Game of Thrones” series.
Eichorn’s classroom is adorned with art, toys, plants, coffee, couches, a free library, and messages of inclusivity. Together with the reptile pair, Eichorn aims to convey the friendly and welcoming atmosphere at the heart of hospitality.
“It’s about welcoming friends, family and strangers into your home and establishment,” Eichorn said. “It’s about feeding them and building those memories. It’s about saying, ‘Hey, the door’s always open. You’re always welcome to come back.’”
Da Vinci and Mucha share a spacious habitat complete with heat lamps and UVB, or ultraviolet B light, all of which are crucial to a bearded dragon’s survival. The habitat also holds food, water, and some comforts of home, including furniture and wood for basking and climbing.
On any given day, the pair could be outside their habitat, meandering about the carpet on foot or taking a ride in their pink convertible or little red Radio Flyer wagon. Da Vinci and Mucha might be chilling on the couches with students. And if it’s hot outside, perhaps they’re basking in the sun and soaking in their shallow pools under a shelter of wire, protected from overhead predators such as hawks.
On a morning in late December, Eichorn lifts the pair out of their habitat. Mucha scurries toward a window facing the school’s common area. She’s looking for students, but they’re away on winter break. Nearby, Eichorn slips a bunny costume onto Da Vinci and slides him into the driver’s seat of the pink convertible.
Da Vinci the bearded dragon goes for a short ride♬ original sound – The Lawrence Times
“Sometimes he gets into it,” she said. “He starts moving the steering wheel and he’ll hit the little blinkers.”
Eichorn pushes the car back and forth while music plays.
“As you can tell, he’s extremely docile,” she said. “He’s very good at being handled. We actually have a little sling that the kids will put him in and then they’ll just hold him all day.”
Eichorn decides Da Vinci should model his unicorn costume. The dragon obliges. Then it’s time for another wardrobe change, and Mucha and Da Vinci each sport a cozy holiday sweater. A patch of shedding skin hangs from Da Vinci’s tummy.
“It gives them something to look forward to every day when they come in,” Eichorn said of her students. “I’m not sure if everybody’s able to have a pet at home. I think bearded dragons are one of those pets that not everybody has or knows somebody that has one, so I think there’s a certain allure to them.”
This is Eichorn’s fourth year as an instructor at the Lawrence College and Career Center. Previously, she taught baking and pastry arts at Topeka Public School’s Center for Advanced Learning and Careers.
Eichorn trained at Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Las Vegas and has worked throughout the world in the hospitality industry. The bearded dragons help Eichorn teach aspects of nutrition in a fun way and have shown her the impact classroom pets can have on students and their learning.
“I don’t know if there’s a true correlation or not, but one student one year, they had test-taking anxiety, and so they would come and they would take Da Vinci and hold Da Vinci when they did their tests,” Eichorn said. “And their test scores actually … went up about 20%. They were able to just hold him and pat him, and that’s very soothing.”
A growing family
In the wild, bearded dragons typically live on their own in the hot and dry climate of Australia. In captivity, they’ve earned a reputation as gentle and affectionate pets; however, many adult dragons prefer to live separately from other beardies.
Named after Leonardo da Vinci and the Czech painter Alphonse Mucha, these bearded dragons are an exception.
“Da Vinci (the male) adores Mucha (the female),” according to Eichorn. “He stares at her with great admiration most of the day. Mucha seems indifferent most days. She is very ‘food motivated.’”
On this particular morning, the chef has prepared a pile of peas, a bit of scrambled egg, some fruit, and a few dried flowers. Mucha and Da Vinci stare at it; they’re not hungry right now. Dragons are omnivores and their dietary, temperature and lighting needs fluctuate by age. They also require reverse osmosis water. Improper husbandry can have dire consequences, so it’s important for owners to understand their pet’s evolving needs throughout the reptile’s life stages.
Beardies love live food — crickets, dubia roaches, and several varieties of worms — sometimes dusted with a light calcium powder to prevent metabolic bone disease. Other needs include dark leafy greens, and certain veggies, fruit and proteins in small quantities. Eichorn avoids acidic foods such as citrus and foods that don’t provide much nutritional value, including iceberg lettuce.
Eichorn likened their eating habits to those of a toddler.
“You want to make sure they’re not bored, or they’re not going to eat,” Eichorn said. “You have to keep them intrigued.”
Recently Mucha received a rare bonus treat: a tiny pinkie mouse. Mucha needed that extra boost of vitamins and minerals after laying a clutch of eggs. Yes, Mucha and Da Vinci are expecting.
Eichorn and her students hope to hatch at least a couple of new beardies sometime around the second week of January. The eggs are at Eichorn’s home under heat and observation. If all goes as planned, she’ll rehome the hatchlings with students and fellow teachers.
‘Top-tier classroom pets’
Reptiles offer people allergic to feathers and fur another option for pet ownership. They demand less attention than mammals and birds and can tolerate long periods alone while their owners attend school or work. Their specific needs can intimidate some potential pet owners, though.
“But with some proper education and learning they are pretty easy to take care of,” said Meriahna Adams, an employee at Pet World Experience in Lawrence.
The most costly aspects of bearded dragon care are a large habitat, temperature control and lighting, according to Adams.
An up to 40-gallon cage with a basking area of 100 degrees is recommended for a baby beardie. They also need a shaded and cooler space. That creates the need for a long terrarium, Adams said.
Like food, lighting is an ongoing expense — UVB bulbs eventually expire and need replacement. Pet World sells a starter kit with a 20-gallon habitat and everything but live and fresh food for about $300, including tax, Adams said.
Adams, who hopes to become a teacher, said she loved to visit classrooms that house pets. They teach kindness, compassion and how to hold animals properly, and are a great tool for educators. Once you teach the basics, Adams said, bearded dragons “are amazing.”
“They’re one of my favorite, top-tier classroom pets,” she said.
How to support Eichorn’s classroom
Da Vinci and Mucha just transitioned to a bigger tank, thanks to a donor.
Eichorn and her students are always looking for donations to benefit their classroom and pets. American Girl and Our Generation doll clothing and accessories are perfect for adult beardies, Eichorn said.
You can reach her via email at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have a donation, or visit her Amazon classroom wish list at this link.
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Note: This post was updated to add a Tiktok video at 7:44 p.m. Monday, Jan. 2.