Last year, a woman made national headlines after she attempted to bring a peacock on a United Airlines flight under the guise of emotional support. For the same reasons, Frontier Airlines barred a woman from a flight for refusing to part with her domesticated squirrel. American Airlines now finds it necessary to post a list of “restricted animals” that includes goats, hedgehogs and spiders.
Emotional support animals have been increasing in popularity, forcing airlines, movie theaters and other public spaces to tighten regulations on those abusing the label. But if support animals are problematic in public and commercial zones, they can be even more harmful in communal living spaces — where people eat, sleep and spend most of their time.
Communal living demands accommodation for a wide array of individuals, including, but certainly not limited to, the physically disabled, those with allergies and those with disorders of mental health. These accommodations may legitimately require the presence of an animal, but the standard for accommodation needs to be appropriately high. Therefore, colleges and universities that provide campus housing, Wellesley included, need to follow the lead of companies like American Airlines and tighten regulations on service animals for emotional support.
It is a millennial mantra to equate mental health with physical health. As a neuroscience major –– and a millennial –– I agree that mental challenges can be as debilitating as physical ones. Colleges’ lackadaisical enforcement of standards for support animals doesn’t simply allow claims of emotional harm; it prioritizes mental over physical health. As an individual with severe autoimmune complications that affect my lungs, making me hypersensitive to pet dander, I struggle living in a college dormitory that allows dogs, cats and even guinea pigs to share my space with little regulation and no formal certification. Disorders causing sensitivity to pet dander are common and serious, leading to consequences that range from asthma to anaphylaxis. Asthma is a condition that afflicts more than 24 million Americans and more than 50 million suffer from chronic allergies.
Others suffer, as well. Janitorial staff are forced to put in extra work to make sure that the next occupant of the space is not affected. This is especially problematic when animals are allowed into common spaces such as living rooms or are bathed in the same showers used by students.
This is not to say that there is no need for support animals. As the daughter of a 20-year military veteran, I have spent much of my life on military bases. I have seen service members return from deployment with missing limbs, with hearing loss from blast-force trauma or otherwise affected by combat. These individuals use service animals, and rightfully so. This also goes for animals needed for emotional support, a reasonable accommodation for someone who likely has acquired PTSD from combat exposure. But these animals are trained. They are certified.
Abuse of emotional support animals is chronic, especially at Wellesley College. The word “trained,” only appears three times in the seven page joint service animal/emotional support animal policy published by the college. All three cases also fall under the sections delineating “service animals” and not once for emotional support animals. Additionally, each use is in the context of subjective reporting by the student and only in the event that college staff/faculty “inquires.”
I like animals. In fact, my respect for animals supports my argument. Anyone who has been in a dorm room knows they hold hardly enough space to accommodate a human. Even a medium-sized dog deserves more than 130 square feet –– not counting furniture obstructions. On top of that, the average college student spends at least 4 hours in classes and meetings each day. Leaving an animal like a dog in a space so confined and for long periods of time is cruel.
Communal living requires compromise. Why not create animal-friendly dormitories for those with animals or those who love their close proximity, while keeping other dorms animal-free? Better yet, require emotional support animals to be properly trained before they are housed on a college campus. In the meantime, I urge Wellesley students, moviegoers and travelers alike with emotional support animals to be conscientious — to consider those who have to make sacrifices for their accommodations.