“Cutest puppy ever in Exley rn,” read an anonymous post on Yik-Yak this past Monday night.
You’ve seen them around campus; With the number of strangers that ogle them, randomly approaching their owners to admire or pet or even suggest pet-sitting them, pets at Wesleyan (as well as other student-owned animals) are nothing short of celebrities.
These animals, however, have a much more important role in their owners’ lives than typical pets. Wesleyan has a clear pet policy, which states: “Pets are not permitted in any student housing with the exception of fish in [10-gallon] tanks or smaller.” So, how exactly do the cats, dogs, guinea pigs, rabbits, and ferrets that are registered on campus transcend the definition of “pet”?
Students with disabilities—which are officially defined as conditions that substantially impair major life functions—are eligible at Wesleyan to apply to own an assistance animal. Associate Dean of Student Academic Resources Laura Patey, who provides services for students with disabilities, reviews the applications.
“Not every individual who has a diagnosis is considered an individual with a disability,” Patey said. “Someone might have anxiety, and they might even be being treated for anxiety, but that anxiety might be at a mild level that doesn’t substantially impair major life functions. Not to deny that that person has anxiety, but it does not necessarily reach the threshold to be considered a disability by law.”
Due to the fact that an individual must meet certain criteria to be defined as having a disability, Wesleyan has a thorough application process for acquiring an assistance animal that assesses whether or not it is appropriate for a student to own one as a support mechanism for hir condition. The process that students currently go through has been modified and improved by the University administration over many years.
“The sense that I got was that there wasn’t always a clear policy or process for requesting an assistance animal that was available to all students; it sort of was dependent upon students knowing who to ask,” Patey said. “What we’ve tried to do is make it a much more transparent process, to make it much more accessible for anyone to go through the process.”
The committee that reviews the applications consists of Patey, Director of Residential Life Frances Koerting, Director of University Health Center Joyce Walter, and Director of Counseling and Psychological Services Jennifer D’Andrea.
“The reason we bring that team together is because students’ requests can cover medical or mental health issues, and we want to have expertise around the table to really evaluate the information that’s coming in,” Patey said.
In addition to this committee, the request for an assistance animal requires documentation from a student’s medical provider—typically a therapist, psychologist, or psychiatrist—who can provide essential additional information about the student’s disability, such as its severity or how it has affected the student’s daily life.
“The process ultimately begins by a student identifying him- or herself as wanting to make the request for an assistance animal, and those students fill out a housing accommodation request form,” Patey said.
Once that has been accomplished, the student is asked to provide documentation from hir provider. The provider’s form determines if the student reaches the threshold of having a “disability.” If the student’s condition is defined as a disability and the request for an assistance animal is pertinent to hir condition, the request will be approved. If the request is deemed unsuitable for the student’s condition, the student always has the right to appeal that denial.
“If it’s approved, it goes right to ResLife, and ResLife staff get in touch with the individual,” Patey said. “Depending on where that student is living and what animal it is that they are requesting to bring, ResLife reaches out to the housemates, apartment-mates, or roommates of the student to make sure that no one will be negatively impacted.”
Generally, the entirety of this application process takes a few weeks, and then a student’s assistance animal is officially registered and allowed to live on campus. There are, of course, students who have animals on campus that are unregistered.
“There are students that think it’s okay to have dogs on campus because they see dogs, not understanding the fact that this is an important accommodation for an individual with a disability that allows them access to programs and services of the institution,” Patey said.
Becca Winkler ’16 went through a strenuous process to get permission to have her assistance animal, an angora rabbit named William.
“A lot of people have a misconception that it’s really easy to get one, which leads people to get animals before they have been approved, which in turn leads to a lot of people getting their animals kicked off campus,” Winkler said. “Not only is that just a pain for anyone themselves, but it puts the animal’s welfare in question.”
Winkler works at the Middletown Veterinary Hospital. Her co-workers informed her that at the end of each semester, many stray cats formerly owned by Wesleyan students appear at the hospital. Students keep cats in their dorms illicitly throughout the semester and abandon them when they can’t make arrangements for the cats’ care during long breaks.
Even with the current system of officially registering an animal on campus, the application focuses more on whether the animal will be helping the student than whether the student is necessarily qualified to take care of the animal.
“You don’t really have to show that you have good knowledge of taking care of an animal to get the support animal; you just have to show that you emotionally need the support animal,” Winkler said. “So I think that there should be a more comprehensive way of making sure people understand how to take care of an animal before they get it, because for me personally, I just care a lot about animal welfare, and this system is tailored more to the people than keeping animals safe.”
However, that is not to say that all unregistered animals on campus should be written off as irresponsibly attained “pets.” In fact, in the past, certain aspects of the registration process itself have turned students off from going through it.
Cade Leebron ’14 owned a guinea pig named America Beyoncé (a.k.a. States) from the middle of her junior year until her graduation. Though Leebron’s pet was registered as a support animal, she doesn’t believe the registration system works entirely to assist those with mental health issues.
“I know people that have had pets that are emotional support animals in a very legitimate way but do not have them registered,” Leebron said. “People are mean to you throughout this application process. Often people won’t be excited for you that you’ll be getting something useful. There is a lot of dismissal, and I understand why people would not register their support animals.”
Apart from this sense of dismissal from the administration, individuals with assistance animals have also encountered skepticism from their peers about living with an animal on campus.
“There is a misconception that support animals are providing the owner with no actual benefit and it is just a clever, clever ruse condoned by the University for students to get pets when that is against the rules,” Leebron said. “People were dismissive with the academic accommodations that I received because of my disability: People would seem like, ‘Oh, this just gives you a leg up over me,’ and with the pet they didn’t seem to feel that same way—like I was getting a benefit they didn’t get.”
Because of the University’s strict guidelines about pet ownership, therapy pets are sometimes seen as a clear sign of disability. This can invade the privacy of pet owners and attract unwanted attention.
“People were sometimes very rude and thought that me having this animal was the perfect opportunity for them to ask a lot of invasive questions about my disability,” Leebron said. “You have this animal and that’s a very visible accommodation, and people all of the sudden will ask you, ‘Are you feeling okay?’ and all these really invasive questions. I think that they make a lot of assumptions, like something must be really wrong if the University is willing to give you this.”
Shelby Gilyard ’17, who has owned her dog Boo for over a year, has dealt with similar misconceptions about pet ownership.
“I remember when I talked to my boyfriend about this when we first started talking last year,” Gilyard said. “He had said, ‘Yeah, I saw you have a dog, but I thought people who had dogs had gone through something traumatic or something that kept them apart from everybody else,’ and that’s not the case at all.”
Assistance animals brighten the days of passersby all over campus, but they also prompt questions around the University of what defines a disability and call into question the stereotypes that students here hold.
“Ableism is very rampant on this campus, and I think it’s the last big frontier to conquer because we’ve already accepted that racism and sexism and classism are bad, and ableism is something that people still feel comfortable expressing because of assumptions that disabled people have a worse quality of life and thus we can discriminate against them openly,” Leebron said. “The majority of people on campus with disabilities have invisible disabilities. People just assume because no one is in a wheelchair or that openly disabled that there are none of us, but there are always more than 200 students on campus with a disability that could be experiencing these issues.”