A Real-Life Animal House

Students share their experiences owning emotional support animals in a college environment.

by Hannah Shariff | 4/20/22 2:10am

esa
Source: Courtesy of Nicholas Sugiarto

Sometimes, all it takes is seeing a dog on the Green to brighten a student’s day. Although animals (other than fish) are generally not allowed in College housing, there are some exceptions for those who demonstrate a need to own an “assistance animal” — either service animals or animals that provide emotional support to alleviate the symptoms of a disability, according to Student Accessibility Services’ Animal Assistance Policies. On a campus generally devoid of pets, how do those with assistance animals navigate the approval process — and how do these animals adjust to campus life? 

Londyn Crenshaw ’22 owns a black cat named Noche, who is registered as an emotional support animal. She decided to apply for permission to get an ESA when she found herself struggling to adjust to campus life during her freshman fall. 

“I was pretty sad and having a hard time adjusting — and I felt like a pet would help with that,” Crenshaw said. “I called my doctor back home and told them about some of my issues. After talking about it, they signed off on it.”

According to Student Accessibility Services director Alison May, emotional support animals are useful for those who have experienced chronic mental health conditions and have not responded to more traditional forms of treatment, like therapy or medication. ESAs are critical for many people suffering from anxiety and depression due to their ability to relieve symptoms of stress and loneliness, help their owners establish routines and assist in coping with phobias. 

Crenshaw had to gain approval from the College before she could adopt Noche. According to May, to qualify for an emotional support animal at Dartmouth, students first must indicate whether or not they are applying for one on their housing application. The student then applies for an ESA through Student Accessibility Services, and with sufficient information and a demonstrated need for an ESA, the student’s request is usually approved. However, May stressed that caring for a living creature should not be taken lightly.

“Think about the fact that this is a living, breathing being. It’s pretty unusual that we would prescribe a living being to accommodate one’s disability,” May said. “Are you in a good position to be able to take care of something, to improve its life while it is improving your life? Do you have the confidence or have a relationship with this animal and will it work with this animal?”

Caring for any animal requires forethought, and the same principle applies to emotional support animals and assistance animals. For students like Nicholas Sugiarto ’23, an undergraduate advisor for Thomas and Goldstein Halls, this meant thinking carefully about what type of animal to bring. 

“I didn’t want a cat or a dog that would be confined in a small space in a dorm. I wanted something to hold and have fun with. Hedgehogs were the perfect blend for me,” Sugiarto said.

Sugiarto commented that, as a night owl, having a nocturnal ESA works well for him.

“A lot of people don’t know that hedgehogs are nocturnal, so if you want to get a hedgehog you better be up at some odd hours if you want to socialize with your pet,” Sugiarto said. “I’m usually up late, so she’s the perfect companion. I’ll be working on some code and she’ll be scurrying around my desk and tugging at my watch.”

Crenshaw also had to make housing decisions based on accommodating Noche. She decided not to live in her sorority house because she worried that her cat would not be able to tolerate the noise, so she currently lives off campus.

Taking responsibility for an animal is always a challenge, but it can be even more difficult in a college environment, as Crenshaw and Sugiarto both discovered. 

“It costs money to have a pet, and my budget is tighter, especially being in college. My cat has medical issues, so he has specific food that’s more expensive. If I want to go out, I need to make sure that my cat is taken care of first,” Crenshaw said.

Sugiarto similarly said that he felt he did not fully anticipate the responsibility of caring for an animal as a college student. 

“With Porkbun, I underestimated how much food she was going to get and how expensive her cage would be, or how much time it would take to clean the cage out on a weekly basis. I definitely underestimated how squeaky her wheel is when I’m trying to sleep at three in the morning,” he said.

Despite the difficulties of owning a pet, Crenshaw said that Noche has been an integral part of her Dartmouth experience, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic and fast-paced 10-week terms. 

“He’s just my companion. After long days or being stressed from school, having him with me — I can’t imagine who I’d be without him. Maybe I would be less tied down or restricted in terms of who I live with or where I live, but I think I would lack the constant companionship that he has given me,” Crenshaw said. 

Crenshaw has found Noche to be an important source of support for both her and those around her.

“When I lived in the dorms it was easier to take care of my cat because there were people closer around to help me feed him if I was at the library or things like that. It was very community-based. People knew I had a cat and would ask me if they could come to hang out with him because they were having a bad day,” Crenshaw said.

Sugiarto had a similar experience and found that his hedgehog has made him an identifiable figure on campus. 

“People recognize me and hear about me before they even know about me,” he said. “People will be like ‘oh you’re the UGA with a hedgehog’ or ‘you’re that Nick’ so it definitely made me memorable in an odd way that I didn’t expect.” 

At the end of the day, for those that need it, the benefits of having an animal in college greatly outweigh the difficulties.

“People think it’s kind of odd. They’ll ask me if it’s a lot, and it is. But [owning a cat] has definitely made my college experience a lot better,” Crenshaw said. 

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