tuatara lizard on a branch

Adam Sandler’s New Movie Sends the Wrong Message About “Class Pets”



‘Leo’ has compassion for the reptiles and hamsters suffering in classrooms, but they’re still the punchline.

Leo, Adam Sandler’s new animated musical on Netflix, is the story of a fifth-grade classroom through the eyes of two class “pets.” Leo, a lizard voiced by Adam Sandler, and Squirtle, a turtle voiced by Bill Burr, have lived in a terrarium in the same room for decades. When a cantankerous substitute teacher takes over, the students are sent into a tailspin and rely on Leo for guidance and support.

Leo Recognizes the Problems with Class “Pets” But Comes Up Short

Leo is aware that class “pet” programs are dangerous, cruel, and even deadly for animals. In one scene, a cage full of terrified hamsters is gleefully tossed in the air by kindergarteners and a rabbit is sprayed with a fire extinguisher. When the substitute teacher revives the policy of students bringing Leo and Squirtle home on weekends, Squirtle protests, saying, “Remember what happens at the kids’ houses? They forget to feed you or abuse you.” We see a flashback of Squirtle being dumped in a hot tub, Leo’s tail being sliced off, and Squirtle being tattooed. This is serious stuff, but it’s presented as a gag.

Leo and Squirtle Don’t Belong in Tanks

While the class “pet” issue is sadly murky in Leo, the movie does make it clear that wild animals suffer in captivity. Leo, believing his death is imminent, spends the movie trying to escape to the wild. He has a song lamenting everything he’s missed, from exploring, foraging, to choosing a mate. He tells one student, “I gotta tell you, the truth is, no animal wants to be locked inside.”

(Spoiler alert) At the end of the movie, Leo is abandoned in the Everglades where he struggles to survive before being saved by the students. While a real-life Leo could never be safely released into the wild (the movie gets that right), viewers aren’t challenged to wonder if there’s somewhere else he could go (like a sanctuary or rescue) or question whether animals should ever be class “pets” at all. Instead, the movie ends with Leo and Squirtle being transferred to a kindergarten classroom.

It’s likely that few Adam Sandler fans were expecting his next movie to deliver a treatise on animal rights. But if you’re going to make a movie about class “pets” that acknowledges animals aren’t happy in cages or being handled by people, then isn’t it worth an ending or even just a few lines that helps make sure future Leos and Squirtles don’t suffer too?

Learn more about class ‘pet’ programs and how to help.

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