While at Wellesley, you may see students walking dogs or hear a strange meow coming from your neighbor’s room. Rest assured, these animals are not contraband. They are emotional support animals, or ESAs.
Wellesley College, under the auspices of the Office of Disability Services, allows students with documented mental health problems to own and house approved animals on campus. The process of getting an ESA, legally classified as an assistance animal, requires getting documentation from at least one doctor or mental health professional which states that a student is in treatment for a mental health condition and that being with an animal would benefit them and their recovery. Once a student has such a document, they can petition disability services and their Residential Director (RD) to have an ESA in the residence hall.
It’s important to note that ESAs are in a different category than service animals, with the main difference between the two being that service animals have individualized training, and ESAs do not. Because of this difference, ESAs have limitations on and off campus. ESAs — which off campus are only allowed in living spaces and on certain modes of transportation — are to be kept in the student’s room and have a predesignated path from the room to the entrance of the building. Even then, other residents on the floor with an ESA are consulted when determining if an animal should be allowed to use the elevator –– elevator use typically depends on the allergies or other physical health issues of other students in the building. Except for by permission, ESAs are not allowed in common spaces. Cecie Negron ’19, who owns a dog named Blue, went into more detail.
“The process of getting Blue approved wasn’t easy,” said Negron. “I started the process before I even had a dog, for it was encouraged as a form of treatment for my mental health. There are paperwork and letters involved, along with meeting with Disability Services. I also have Blue approved to be in the common room, which was extremely difficult to secure. I asked for the common room access because, although Blue does so much for my mental health, having an ESA on campus can be isolating. In order to gain access to common spaces, the entire dorm needed to approve her access to ensure that no one with allergies or any other situation were burdened by her presence.”
One argument some have raised against ESAs on campus is that they are left alone for long periods of time due to students’ busy schedules. Sydney Ortiz ’19 responds that there is no need for an animal to be left alone for too long.
“I feel bad for leaving him alone when I go to class, but it be like that,” said Ortiz. “Sometimes I end up being late because I’m petting him for too long and kissing his head. If I’m gone for a night, I’ll ask a neighbor to feed him and play with him for a bit. For longer trips back home, I always take him with me.”
Jim Wice, director of disability resources, wants it made clear that the health of students with allergies and asthma are also taken seriously.
“With regard to students who may have allergies, they are encouraged to contact Accessibility and Disability Resources and document their needs,” he said. “If there is a conflict between a student with an emotional support animal and a student who has allergies to the animal, Residential Life in collaboration with Accessibility and Disability Resources will work to determine if there is a need to modify access such as to the common space, share the access at different times, and develop a schedule for when the student walks the animal so the other student does not come in contact or the possibility of other accommodations. Both students needs are recognized if both students come forward and express a need.”
ESAs, although a big responsibility, can be a huge step in recovery for a mental health condition. Although they are not service animals, they are also not pets. They serve a real, important function to their owners.