Syracuse University is experiencing an increase in students living with animals on campus, according to the Office of Residence Life.
Terra Peckskamp, Director of the Office of Residence Life at Syracuse University, said that having animals on campus is something a lot of campuses are talking about, seeing more of, and figuring out how to navigate.
“We’ve had more of them on South Campus in the apartments, where it’s a little bit easier to do that, but they can have them in the residence halls too,” said Peckskamp. This year, there are two students with animals in residence halls, and many more on South Campus.
Neha Rauf has an emotional support animal in the University Village Apartments. Her family moved to Wales so she was feeling very lonely and started going to counseling. She brought up the idea of an emotional support animal to her therapist, who also thought it would be beneficial.
“There’s a lot of therapeutic benefit from just taking care of something,” said Rauf. “I enjoy being busy and having responsibilities.”
Peckskamp said that, for students who need emotional support animals, they “can be incredibly beneficial and can really help them thrive on campus. However, having animals in residence halls does create challenges.
Rauf plans her schedule around her dog. She has to go home at some point during the day or have a neighbor check in on her dog. Because of this, Rauf only took twelve credits this semester.
Rauf’s dog, Jill, is a mix of a laboratory retriever and a pitbull, which she says sometimes raises some eyebrows. “Fix It gets nervous,” she said. Still, Rauf said that her dog is one of the best decisions she’s ever made.
Neha Rauf and her dog, Jill.
In a study ran by Theresa McDevitt and others at the Indiana University of Pennsylvania, 95% of 449 student participants considered interaction with therapy dogs to be a means of stress reduction.
“I think there’s a greater understanding now of the impact of animals on people,” said McDevitt. “If you pet a dog, a hormone is released that makes you calmer and, if your heart was racing, it brings your heart rate back down to normal.”
Timothy Reid is a graduate student in the Psychology Department at Syracuse University, who said that it’s possible that some of the students with animals could be faking mental illness so they can bring their pets to school. “I think it is possible in any field that people will try and cheat the system in some way. With enough research, you could probably fake something,” said Reid. “There are scenarios where it would be advantageous for someone to get a diagnosis that maybe they don’t actually have.”
C.W. Von Bergen, a professor at the Southeastern Oklahoma State University and an expert on animals in society, said that it’s hard to identify mental disabilities so it’s easy for college students to claim they have one. “It’s particularly true in dorms and housing situations, where the federal housing administration has approved bringing animals as a mental accommodation,” said Von Bergen.
He worries that it’s getting easier and easier to get someone classified as having a mental disability. He mentioned that there are a number of companies on the internet that, in exchange for payment, will write a letter to your landlord or university saying that you have a mental disability and that an animal would be beneficial treatment.
However, Peckskamp is confident in Syracuse University’s Office of Residence Life’s system to make sure that the animal is a legitimate need for the student. “It’s not just, ‘Hey I want to bring Fido from home,’… Those are the ones that end up getting turned down.” However, Peckskamp said that most of the cases she’s been involved in have resulted in the student being able to keep the animal.
Still, the Office of Residence Life is still struggling with issues where students have animals who aren’t there legally and try to say it was approved by a therapist, but they haven’t been approved by the school. “We kind of work with them on that process, so in the interim there’s a little bit of limbo where we’ll say the animal can stay for two days but they need to be able to provide the documentation,” said Peckskamp.
“It’s more of the students who actually are just there with pets where we have to say no, that they have to find somewhere else for their animal,” which Peckskamp said happens a lot on South Campus.
Sometimes students will remove the pet, but a few months later the Office of Residence Life will come back to check and the pet will be back again. At that point, they may move the student out of the apartment and into a residence hall, which affects meal plans and financial aid.
“We have students sign a notarized form that says I understand that I’ll be moved if I have my pet back again because it’s not just the student that’s impacted but it’s their roommates, and it’s also the pet. Because our residential facilities may or may not be well equipped for animals,” said Peckskamp.
The Office of Residence Life also keeps a close eye on South Campus apartments because of the wild cat problem. Once people graduate or leave, they sometimes just turn them loose.
“There’s a lot of trickery going on, a lot of faking kind of activities,” said Von Bergen. “I think it does a disservice to people who actually have a mental or emotional disability.”
By Abby Rose Sugnet