By ABBEY BAILEY
Have you ever wished you could come home to a soft, cuddly animal after a hard day of classes and exams, even if you live on campus? UMW has a program for people with diagnosed disabilities that allows them to keep support animals in residence halls on campus. According to the Office of Disability Resources, “a support animal is an animal that provides emotional or other support which ameliorates one or more identified symptoms or effects of a person’s disability.”
UMW junior Andy Unger lives in the UMW Apartments with his cat, Krem (short for Cremisius Acatti). He explained that the process for getting a support animal can be complicated, which he attributes to students trying to “dodge the system,” but the work is worth it.
Jessica Machado, the Director of Disability Resources, explained that, “Currently, students are asked to complete the Housing Accommodation Application, including information from a licensed practitioner who is working with the student that can provide information on the student’s disability(ies) and its impact, as well as information on how the recommendation for an emotional support animal is related to supporting their disability-related needs.”
The note from a student’s licensed practitioner must be on an official letterhead. “Once this information is completed and submitted to our office,” stated Machado, “it is reviewed by the Housing Committee. The Housing Committee meets regularly throughout the year to review requests. Decisions are emailed to students after the committee meets on their request.”
Senior Kirsten Quarforth lived with a support animal, her cat named Lily, last year in the UMW Apartments. “I got my email in my boyfriend’s apartment and I was so excited that I was scared to look, so he looked for me. It was a very exciting day for me, one of my happiest,” reflected Quarforth.
Machado also explained that the office “is in the process of updating the process to reflect best practices and current standards in institutions of higher education reflected nationally. Once these updates are finalized, our process will be posted on the website.” Machado also encourages interested students to contact the office with any questions, explaining that “we are working to best meet the needs of the student by implementing a process where we are collecting the necessary information to understand student’s needs through an interactive process with the student, practitioner/medical provider, and ODR.”
Based on her experience getting a support animal, Quarforth added, “The one thing to take away from the process that it is a little backwards…you need to get the animal before you meet with Residence Life. So, basically, unless you already have the animal, it becomes tricky to get an animal and then have somewhere to put the animal.”
There is increasing research on the benefits of ESAs, or emotional support animals. In the April 2017 issue of “Time” magazine, author Mandy Oaklander stated, “The rise of animal therapy is backed by increasingly serious science showing that social support–a proven antidote to anxiety and loneliness–can come on four legs, not just two. Animals of many types can help calm stress, fear and anxiety in young children, the elderly and everyone in between.”
The article from “Time” even cites one bizarre but telling example of a 2016 study in which a group of elderly people were given five crickets to take care of. The group given the crickets became less depressed after eight weeks of taking care of the insects than the control group. The act of caring for the wellbeing of the animal seems to be the contingent factor in the benefits of ESAs.
Both Unger and Quarforth feel that even though the process was somewhat difficult, it was completely worth it. Unger explained that he has the cat for mental health reasons. “[My roommate] and I got a cat to deal with his ADHD and depression and my anxiety as well as some other stuff. She’s really helpful for depression though. Taking care of something besides yourself is a good way to make yourself do something every day, and I’d say cats purring is the best cure for the sads.”
“I would highly recommend it,” said Quarforth. “It’s nice to have a guarantee that you’ll always have something with you, to carry you through college and the uncertain time after, waiting for you when you get home, etc. I got Lily, my cat, because I thought it would help with my depression. She’s done all that and more.”
One of the reasons ESAs can be beneficial to people who suffer from depression specifically is that the animal gives you a reason to get up in the morning. Quarforth states that “If I don’t get up, she doesn’t eat. And it’s true that petting an animal can help with stress, I’ve had many wonderful nights with Lily curled up by my side when I thought I’d be too stressed to sleep.”
Quarforth did bring up one issue with having an animal in a residence hall: fire drills. She explained that “you can take the cat out during fire drills, in a carrier, but that’s only if you can catch the scared cat… my cat often hid under my roommate’s bed during the fire drill and for an entire day after it.”