Emotional Support Animals at Elizabethtown College

Under the Fair Housing Act, students living in college dorms may be permitted to have an emotional support animal (ESA). These animals are different from service animals – rather providing the stereotypical sensory aid or other services, ESAs are intended to provide emotional support and companionship for students with psychiatric diagnoses (source).

Personally, I’ve found great comfort in my ESAs, my gerbils. I find watching them really comforting, and when one of them deigns to allow me to hold him, I feel calm and at peace. I call them my demon children, but they really have done amazing things for my mental health.

Several other students have spoke to the benefits that their ESAs have provided them. Education major Hannah Soden views her ESA as a crucial part of her life, saying “I feel as though having this animal is essential; she keeps me functioning as regularly as possible.” Carly Sherba, a Computer Science and Japanese major, said “[My ESA] provides emotional support and stability in my day to day life. My depression can get bad enough that I spend entire days in bed without moving, so just having [my ESA] as an entity I have to take care of means I’m infinitely more likely to get out of bed to give him food and water.” History Education major Danica Kline also spoke to the importance of having her ESA, saying “Before I had [my ESA], I used to experience panic attacks multiple times a day even if there was no specific thing going wrong. [My ESA’s] presence alone is enough to distract me from my anxiety and depression. If weren’t for her, I probably would’ve dropped out.”

Carly Sherba also offered their thoughts on the process of getting an ESA. “[It] was hell,” they said, “because I was told I could bring my snake, and then a few days before I completed that process I was told that the school was no longer accepting reptiles. I have reason to believe that Disability Services didn’t read the appeal letter I wrote. Getting [my cat] was smoother but I already had everything in order for an ESA beforehand.” Danica Kline expressed dissatisfaction with Disability Service’s handling of her case, saying frankly “Disability Services doesn’t seem to know how to handle mental illnesses. They do better with learning disabilities, but I don’t think that they have much knowledge of how mental illnesses work.”

Some students expressed dissatisfaction in how the school handles this aspect of mental health care, including the policies that seem to constantly be changing. “I appreciate that the school allows us to have these animals,” Hannah Soden said, “but I think, like anything, people could be more understanding, especially with their policies.” Carly Sherba said “I’m really grateful the school even allows ESAs, but I think the process should be honest about what animals can and can’t be allowed.” Similarly, History major Morgan Smith said “They could make clear and concise rules. They shouldn’t revoke privileges given to people who have already been approved.”

The school’s official policy is that once an accommodation has been given, it will not be removed, but Morgan Smith’s comment echoes the current tension surrounding having reptiles as ESAs. Morgan Smith and Carly Sherba both were initially approved to have reptiles as their ESAs but received notification over the summer before the 2018-19 semester that while they were still permitted to have an ESA, reptiles were no longer permitted on the grounds that they could cause salmonella.

However, research has shown that reptiles don’t pose a great risk of salmonella with proper care (source). Morgan Smith colorfully responded to this, stating “Wash your hands after you handle your animal and don’t eat its shit and you won’t get salmonella.” Danica Kline posited that “revoking of reptiles is discrimination, especially when the college’s original policy was that a student could have any animal as long as it fit in the dorm.” Additionally, the school’s view that only “cuddly animals” can be ESAs may raise problems of people with allergies who require ESAs or who simply don’t like dogs, cats, or rodents.

Another new policy enacted by the college states that only one rodent will be allowed as an ESA, although in the past, pairs of rodents have been allowed. Some students feel that this is inhumane. Indeed, a multitude of research has been done on schizophrenia via rodents in forced social isolation, because they develop schizophrenic symptoms when deprived of interaction with their own kind (source, source, source). “Rodents need another, and it’s just plain cruel of the college to say there can only be one of them,” Carly Sherba said. “It’s not humane.” Similarly, Hannah Soden said “I think the policy is inhumane. Rodents are social and almost always require a companion. If an animal can be humanely kept alone, I see no issue. But, with animals like rodents, it's a major issue.” Danica Kline compared it to the reptile policy, saying “When you’re not allowing animals [who require companionship] to be housed with another animal, you’re discriminating against those animals entirely.” This prevents people who would benefit best from rodent ESAs from getting them if they have concern for the welfare of the animal. Put simply, as Morgan Smith said, “If an animal is scientifically proven to need companionship other than humans, they should be allowed [that companionship].”

The rodent policy is not the only thing to raise concerns of animal welfare. Another new policy of the college is that animals must be crated or otherwise contained when their owner is not present. This has caused understandable questions of the animal’s wellbeing. The school posits that this is in the event of facilities needing to access a student’s room to make repairs.

Students with ESAs have expressed willingness to work with this policy, including Hannah Soden, who said “I think if someone like facilities needs to get into a room, an email or something should be sent out to the owner so they know when to crate their animals. The animal can be crated for the day or few hours someone else needs access to the room.” However, Disability Service’s policy is a blanket statement that all animals must be crated. Danica Kline spoke to this, saying “I…think it’s very ignorant, especially for animals that have everything they need outside of the crate. A dorm room itself is small enough to be a crate. Why should the animals suffer in a crate for eight or more hours a day without food, water, a litter box, or bathroom breaks when it’s facilities fault for not following the times students provide? And what about animals with crate anxiety? I’ve seen animals tear themselves to shreds trying to get out of their crate while others defecate or urinate all over themselves from stress. It’s inhumane.”

The overall response from the interviews conducted for this article was one of discouragement. A group of students has been working with the Vice President of Student Life to advocate for the rights of animals in these policies, but progress has been stagnant. Personally, I don’t find a lot of hope in this situation. I can’t even end this article on some sort of falsely positive note about how at least the college permits ESAs, because they must by law. The state of ESAs at Elizabethtown College remains a contested field for both student and animal wellbeing, and I don’t see much hope for the future.