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Colleges see growing demand for emotional support animals on campus

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Students at UW-Green Bay in need of extra support may go through the process to bring an emotional support animal on campus with them to live in their dorm.

GREEN BAY – If Sam Okhuysen is feeling anxious, sometimes all it takes is for her emotional support cat, Cleo, to curl up on the small of her back to calm her down. 

“That instantly almost relieves all of the anxiety that I have. So, I’ll pretty much take a nap almost with her on my back and I’ll wake up feeling good,” said Okhuysen, a senior at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. 

The 21-year-old Stephenson, Michigan, native adopted Cleo last year with the hope the cat could help manage her anxiety, depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder. 

“I’m a lot happier person in general than I was before I got her,” Okhuysen said. 

Cleo is one of 12 emotional support animals that call the university’s dorms home during the school year. A similar number of support animals are allowed to live on campus at St. Norbert College.

Decisions about allowing emotional support animals in rental housing, including public and private college dormitories, are governed by the Fair Housing Act, which prohibits property owners from turning away any person with a mental or physical disability who has a certified emotional support animal.

Growing requests

UW-Green Bay and St. Norbert College have begun fielding more requests from students wanting to bring an emotional support animal to campus.

Currently, St. Norbert has approved 12 cats and one dog living on campus. Green Bay’s approved support animals include a rabbit, a guinea pig and two dogs. The remainder are cats. 

Being able to accommodate a student’s need for an support animal is another way to help them manage their emotional and mental health while at college. 

“We’re just seeing students that are struggling more with mental health issues … and that’s across the United States,” said the Rev. Jay Fostner, vice president for mission and student affairs at St. Norbert College.

Each school has its own application and review process, but both start with a student providing documentation from a medical or mental health professional about the necessity of a service animal.

At UWGB, when a student submits all the necessary paperwork for an ESA it goes to the Housing Request Accommodation Committee for review. Committee members check to make sure documentation comes from a legitimate medical professional who has worked with the student.

Mainly, the students who apply to live with a support animal have some sort of mental health diagnosis, said Lynn Niemi, director of disability services at UWGB. 

At St. Norbert, students work with Academic Support Services and once a student’s request is approved it moves to Fostner’s department to arrange a housing assignment.

At both schools, all roommates must feel comfortable with an animal living in the dorm or apartment.

Each school offers animal-free living arrangements for people with allergies or who might not like animals.

Help with transitions

College is the first time many students have been away from home, and some struggle to adjust.

St. Norbert sophomore Servando Garcia of Luxemburg has dealt with anxiety since he was 7 years old and being at college made him realize he needed to address his condition.

“I’ve always struggled with anxiety and it got worse during college, I decided that I needed help,” Garcia said.

The 19-year-old adopted Mateo, a Siamese cat, about a year ago. He also sees a counselor. 

“When I feel anxious my heart is racing. I can’t think. I can’t concentrate. When I try to study or do homework my mind is always somewhere else and I have difficulty finishing my tasks,” Garcia said. 

Mateo’s presence helps to calm him down and puts him in a better mood. 

“There is always misconception about going to counseling, that it’s only for people who are weak. Mental health for me … it is just as important as physical health,” Garcia said.

Mackenzie Schopf, a 21-year-old from Sturgeon Bay, found herself in a similar situation. Leaving home for UW-Green Bay was hard for the self-described homebody, who has been dealing with generalized anxiety for years.  

“College was definitely a big transition for me and so, in the beginning, it was really hard,” Schopf said.

Help came in the form of her dog, a Shiba inu named PJ, who has been living with her on campus for a year and a half.

When Schopf is having a bad day she can take PJ for a walk. Being in a different environment helps Schopf relax and think about her problems in a constructive way. 

Sometimes, PJ’s very presence is calming. 

“She’s just there. Just being able to pet her and just to be able to go for a walk with her and just relieve those everyday anxieties that I have. Being able to do those things diverts my energy,” she said. 

PJ also helps structure Schopf’s day and that, in turn, helps manage her anxiety.

Students have found the animals have the added bonus of being a conversation starter and an opener for making new friends.

Cleo has helped Okhuysen be more social with her roommates and with others around campus.

“Before, school was really bad for me. I mean, I enjoyed it but I didn’t want to go back to my dorm. I didn’t want to do anything with anybody. It was just a hole I didn’t want to be in,” she said.

Now the cat welcomes her home and gets her moving on the bad days.

“I’m the weird cat lady that takes her cats on walks when it’s warm out,” Okhuysen said with a giggle. People will come up and talk to her while she and Cleo are out walking. 

Schopf also found people want to bond over PJ.

All the students stressed that their animals perform a service and are not there simply because they wanted a pet.

“The animal is more than that, he kind of has a job to do,” said St. Norbert student Hannah Vandewalle of her cat, Komali. “I need him here so I can function like a normal person.”

Strict rules

St. Norbert student Scarlett Suhrer, 21, had to switch rooms when she received approval to bring her 6-year-old cat Mystic to campus. Now, the Sturgeon Bay native rooms with several people, including two other cat enthusiasts.

Both schools require that the animal must be able to live comfortably in the student’s apartment, room or dorm; animals must be restrained when outside a dorm room; the animals cannot be left alone overnight or for a long period of time; and the student is responsible for all its care.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development does not specifically spell out what type of animal can serve as an emotional support animal, but the animal must provide a therapeutic benefit, said Rebecca Wisch, a Michigan-based attorney and associate editor for the Animal Legal & Historical Center.

 “It might be hard to prove with a snake or a tarantula but who knows,” Wisch said.

Each college has to decide what will be best for its students, she said. 

“They have to be domesticated animals,” said Gail Sims-Aubert, director of residence life at Green Bay. UWGB does not allow domesticated animals that have the possibility of spreading illnesses like salmonella.

Sims-Aubert begins working with students once an animal has been approved.

She stresses to students not only the impact the animals will have on their life as far as scheduling but, also, financially.

“I think it would be irresponsible for me not to bring up owning an animal can be quite expensive,” Sims-Aubert said.

She also advises students on how to be good roommates by keeping their animals clean, vacuuming the soft seating in the apartment and putting out a lint roller for roommates to use in case of stray pet hair.

 “(I) just throw out some tips to keep roommate relationships on the positive side,” Sims-Aubert said.  

In the early days, students thought it would be fun to live with an animal, but more and more roommates are now saying to “no,” Sims-Aubert said.

“I think initially the ESAs were … such a new concept. That is so unique. That sounds fun to live with an animal,” Sims-Aubert said.

Over time that found they did not enjoy living with an animal for any number of reasons, she said.

At both UWGB and St. Norbert the animals must be well-behaved, and students are responsible for paying for any damage their animal causes.

“They have the same rules. They don’t have separate rules because they are an animal,” Niemi said

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