By ARDEN IGLEHEART
While campus residents live in close quarters, these students might not be aware that they could have a dog, a cat, a guinea pig, or even a hedgehog as a neighbor. Emotional support animals (ESAs) have become more common at UT and there are currently no service animals that are technically off-limits, according to Elizabeth Schoepp, associate director of academic excellence programs.
An ESA is different from a service animal, which performs a specific task for a student. An emotional support animal assists with a disability, but does not perform a task. Therefore the animal would not be considered a service animal under the Americans with Disabilities Act, according to UT’s policy on emotional support and service animals. College dorms became required by law to accommodate emotional support animals after a 2013 court ruling that dictated that university-owned student residences are subject to the Fair Housing Act, according to Schoepp.
Kaeli, a freshman international business major who didn’t want her last name included, has a kitten as an ESA. A friend found her kitten a couple months ago as a stray near Sykes Chapel. After living in the student’s room unknown to RAs for a few days, Kaeli decided to take in the kitten, who she named Ella, and register her with the administration as a ESA. Ella helps Kaeli with her anxiety, which got worse after she moved here from the northeast.
“Having to take care of her gives me something to do,” Kaeli said. “If I’m not doing well in some classes and I’m like, “What’s the point of being here?” I still have her, got to take care of her, got to feed her.”
Stephen Sferazza, a junior accounting major, was recommended to get an ESA by his physician for depression. Sferazza got a cat at the beginning of the school year, which lives with him in Brevard.
“It’s a constant source of having someone you’re familiar with close to you. At least for me in particular, my depression is the worst when it’s just alone time,” Sferazza said. “You have a constant source of love and affection, and you have another person, it feels like, with you in the room, even though it’s a cat.”
To obtain approval to bring an ESA on campus, a student must receive a note from a physician documenting a disability and explaining how this animal will assist them. The only reason she has denied a request in the past, Schoepp said, is because a student didn’t have the proper documentation.
After approving the request, Disability Services notifies Residence Life. If the student has roommates, the roommates must sign an acknowledgment that the animal will be present, according to Schoepp.
“If anyone doesn’t want to live with an animal, we work with Residence Life to try to get that resolved,” Schoepp said. “Whether that means someone has to move, or there’s just an agreement put in place with the roommates.”
Charlotte Navarro, a senior biology major, lives in Palm Apartmentswith Natalia Bernstain-Mayol, a sophomore psychology major who has a dog named Cleo. Navarro was ecstatic when she found out Bernstain-Mayol was bringing a dog. Navarro said there are definitely some drawbacks of living with a dog, like when Cleo barks at night. However, Navarro said it’s worth it because Cleo is affectionate towards her.
“Sometimes, if I’m having a really stressful day, like I just got out of a really hard exam, she makes it better,” Navarro said.
Disability Services has a couple rules for how other students should act around ESA and service animals. Students must not pet the animals without asking, and they must not ask about a student’s disability. While Schoepp said that most students don’t know that these are official rules, all of the students interviewed said that students obey them as social rules. Bernstain-Mayol said students generally assume her dog is an ESA.
“Most people are very respectful,” Bernstain-Mayol said. “You can’t really ask what people have, but you respect that someone has something and they have the animal for a reason.”
Sferazza agreed that most students are respectful, but said that they often do not understand the seriousness of emotional support animals. Many students, he said, will see ESA on campus and want to bring their pet on campus, but don’t understand that these animals serve a different purpose for those with disabilities.
“It could be that it gets that person out of bed every day,” Sferazza said. “It could be that that person has had sexual abuse and overwhelming anxiety – that could be what calms them rather than having to take a Xanax. It’s a form of treatment; it’s not necessarily just a pet.”
While most ESAs at UT are cats or dogs, according to Schoepp, Jeremy Hosee, a freshman international business major, has a hedgehog named Rosie as an ESA. He got it because he likes exotic animals and thought a cat would be too much work. Petting his hedgehog does make him happier, but he said hedgehogs can’t be affectionate towards humans so they aren’t as effective for emotional support as are dogs or cats.
“If anything,” Hosee said, “don’t get a hedgehog.”
Arden Igleheart can be reached at email@example.com.