BY MERYL PHAIR ’21
The only animals allowed within Mount Holyoke residence halls are fish contained in a tank or bowl of five gallons or less, according to Assistant Dean of Students and Director of Residential Life Rachel Alldis. In an email outlining pet policies that was sent out to the Mount Holyoke student body on Jan. 30, Alldis explained that the only exceptions to this rule are emotional support animals (ESAs) and service dogs or animals.
“Emotional support animals are different from service animals in that they do not have to perform any trained tasks for their owner, and instead their primary job is to provide love and support,” said L. Gray ’19, whose ESA is a seven-year-old Great Dane-Labrador mix named Gypsy, who Gray describes as “very friendly.”
In addition to offering comfort to students, ESAs can help provide structure and assist with homesickness. “When I got the Guinea pigs it was mainly just because I missed having them as a kid,” said Jay Eveson ’20 of their ESAs. Eveson has three guinea pigs, Autumn, Holly and Lucy, that they say mean much more to them than just pets.
“I’m autistic and have executive functioning issues as well as an autoimmune disease and some mental health issues,” they said. After Eveson got their guinea pigs, they began to function better, and it became easier for them to take care of themself. “Holly is responsive to me and my emotional needs. She seems to always know when I need some attention from her,” Eveson said. “Recently, I’ve realized she seems to be able to alert me to certain things, like when I’m about to be sick. She’ll run over to me and start standing up looking at my face.”
They said that Lucy is constantly reminding them when she needs to be fed. “You can’t exactly press ‘snooze’ on a guinea pig,” said Eveson. Autumn, Holly and Lucy help Eveson with daily living tasks, scheduling and emotional control and support. They said that sitting down and cuddling with them makes them happy and motivates them.
“When you leave home, people don’t realize the levels of homesickness you can have. And missing your pets can be a huge one,” said Aleasha Jay ’21, whose cat Cheechee has been by her side since she was eight years old. Jay says that ever since she was young, her cat would come and comfort her when she was stressed. It became something she could rely on. “In college, he is like my security blanket, always excited to see me and dying for attention,” said Jay.
At Mount Holyoke, students like Gray, Eveson and Jay are permitted to have ESAs live with them in their residence hall rooms, but must go through a registration process with AccessAbility Services first. Registering a comfort animal includes submitting documentation from a licensed healthcare provider and an appointment with the College’s accommodation coordinator. According to the College’s policies and procedures, animals are then approved by AccessAbility on a case-by-case basis in accordance with federal regulations, as stated in the College’s policies and procedures.
Alldis confirmed in her email that comfort animals must stay in their approved residence hall room only. Some comfort animals, such as dogs, will need to be taken outside, but according to the guidelines by AccessAbility services, they should not be brought into common areas or Golden Pear kitchens or taken to any other buildings on campus. Service dogs, trained dogs that perform tasks for people with disabilities, are allowed to go anywhere on campus as long as they are accompanied by their handler.
Melissa Carney ’19 has had her service dog, Aron, by her side since her second semester at Mount Holyoke. Carney got Aron from Guiding Eyes for the Blind in New York, one of several guide dog schools located throughout the country. She describes the certification process for service dogs as “very rigorous.”
Once the dogs are trained, they are matched with a handler. Carney said the interview process she went through included a videotape of her walking a route through campus. “They match you with a guide dog depending on your lifestyle and what might be good for you,” said Carney. Aron and Carney were matched and had to complete more joint trainings.
“Transitioning from a white cane to a dog takes a lot of patience and work because you’re essentially switching from one mobility tool to another,” said Carney. “It took a lot of training on my part to get used to that transition and really put my trust in his paws and be confident in the fact that he was going to guide me safely to wherever I needed to go. I relied on myself for a lot of things but it is a teamwork effort.”
Carney has experienced increased independence and mobility on campus since being matched with Aron, adding that it was especially helpful during construction with all the added obstacles. She also said Aron has meant a huge social uplift for her. “Most people haven’t interacted with someone who is blind so for them it’s out of their comfort zone,” said Carney. “It’s new to them and people tend to shy away from the unfamiliar. With a dog, he’s a great conversation starter.”
Carney says that one of the problems associated with service dogs is that people often conflate them with ESAs, even though they are, as she says, “in complete different categories.”
“I think there’s also a lot of friction for people who may have a fear of dogs or allergies of dogs,” said Carney. “I think we are a very dog-friendly campus but it’s important for people to understand sometimes it’s tough to interact with a dog. But every service animal does have its place and there’s a way to work through those differences.”
Carney emphasized the importance of having more knowledge about having animals on campus. “If there was greater awareness about service dogs and emotional support animal laws, I just think that would be more effective for everyone involved.”