We were standing in a dark bedroom near the heart of Central Campus. Twin heat lamps dangling over the snake’s terrarium gave the apartment a calm glow, almost indistinguishable from the sunset outside. This atmosphere reflected Rich’s snake, Buddha, an embodiment of chill in all but its flickering tongue.
“It’s funny to see how scared people are of snakes,” his roommate Dylan Brockmeyer* added from the doorway.
The two Duke seniors have been living together since freshman year, but Buddha joined them only a few weeks ago.
“I was actually pretty freaked out the first day,” Rich said. “We went to Petco wanting to get a fish, and I saw him, and I didn’t realize you could keep snakes as pets. We took him out, Dylan played with him for a bit…. Two days later we came back and bought everything.”
Duke’s campus is home to a surprising number of student pet owners, all hiding a myriad of creatures from the eyes of the law. Ball pythons aren’t common here, but alongside the dogs, cats, birds, hamsters, ferrets and hedgehogs that students raise, Buddha just about rounds out the surreptitious Duke zoo.
Ownership is a risky game. Pets are strictly forbidden by Housing, Dining and Residential Life policy, and pet owners are vividly aware of this. Their fear is justified. According to HDRL policy, “if it is reported that you have brought an animal into the residence halls, you will receive a letter requesting you remove the animal immediately and sign a statement that you have done so and will never again allow an animal to be brought into the residence halls.”
But Rich said this doesn’t worry him.
“I didn’t even know it was illegal for a while,” he said.
As Brockmeyer and Rich see it, having a pet on campus is well worth the risk.
“It keeps us some company,” Rich told me. “We’re just relaxing in here, Buddha relaxes with us. When you work and you see a snake passing by, it’s very chill; it kind of gives you this confidence boost. It’s a snake! In the room!”
Ball pythons are a non-venomous species commonly sold as pets, so despite Buddha’s intimidating presence, he isn’t actually dangerous.
Brockmeyer agreed with his roommate.
“It’s cool having another living thing besides humans in the room. You get pretty insane otherwise,” he said.
It’s said that owners resemble their pets, and when I asked about the difficulty of keeping the snake secret, it was clear that Rich shared Buddha’s confident nonchalance.
“Last weekend, we had a party, and before we knew it, one person came in to see the snake, and then five more came in, and they told their friend, and he told his friend, and she told her friend, and there ended up being a lot of people around here,” Rich told me.
I looked at him in disbelief. The stakes are very high, and Rich clearly understands this. But he also understands his friends.
“Nobody’s going to go and rat on us,” he said.
In a college culture where illegal activities like underage drinking are common, a violation of Duke’s pet policy may feel like jaywalking—owners accept that they have to be careful, but the pet is a secret kept only from the resident assistants. Trusted friends know, but there’s a certain level of caution toward anybody else.
This caution clings to former pet owners as well. When I asked junior John Bush about the puppy he raised last year, his first question was, “Who told you?” But his suspicion quickly flashed into a smile.
“I don’t have Oscar now, so I’d be happy to talk,” he said.
A Central Campus resident as well, Bush led me into a warm, party-christened apartment, and began to tell his story.
“It was pretty impulsive. I was thinking about it for… maybe a week,” he said. “In hindsight, I probably shouldn’t have gotten a puppy, but… nah, I love Oscar.... Since I live close to home… I figured it shouldn’t be too much of a hassle.”
Bush kept Oscar on campus for a semester before sending the dog to live with his family in Chapel Hill, and said the policy didn’t really get in his way.
“He’s a small dog. It wasn’t a whole lot of effort to keep him, you know, out of the eyes of the Duke administration, but it also wasn’t a lot to take care of him…. On the weekend, I let him run around [outside],” Bush said.
Surprised, I asked Bush why the policy didn’t prevent him from letting the dog outside.
“I mean, I knew about the policy, but the worst thing that could happen is they just tell me to bring him home,” he said. “That’s a key thing, living close to home. I couldn’t have him if I didn’t live near here.”
The more I spoke with these pet owners, the more I realized that the policy is just a small rock adding to the weight of ownership. Other responsibilities and concerns for the pet are more important, and in the owners’ eyes, only carelessness could make them targets of HDRL.
But some owners—careless or otherwise—have lost that gamble.
“Somebody, second semester, got two puppies. And Duke found out about it, and they had to get rid of them,” Bush recalled.
The man on the other side of HDRL policy is Dean for Residential Life Joe Gonzales. He welcomed me into his office with an eager handshake and dark, friendly eyes. This dean did not look like the enemy.
“Well essentially, students are allowed to have fish,” Gonzales chuckled. “Pretty much after that… unless there’s some sort of service animal, they’re not allowed to have pets.”
Though this is all the explanation that the official documents offer, Gonzales elaborated on the policy.
“There are several [reasons]. One that’s becoming increasingly common is there are so many students with allergies that even despite [occupants’] best efforts to clean a space… if someone who’s really sensitive moves in after them, that causes a lot of struggles. There’s also just sanitary and safety concerns,” he said.
Gonzales said he ultimately sees pets get removed about five to 10 times per year. But even when HDRL removes pets, severe consequences for the students are rare.
“It’s happened once in the nine years I’ve been here,” Gonzales said. “We had a student who had a cat, and she wouldn’t get rid of it despite multiple opportunities, and eventually we just said, ‘Okay, we need both of you to go [off campus].’”
Gonzales, however, did remember one event in which an illegal pet caused serious damage to a Central Campus dorm.
“We actually had one instance in which the apartment where a snake was living caught fire because of the snake and the light it had to keep it warm,” he said. “There was a pretty great amount of damage caused by that.”
As Gonzales laid out the reasoning behind the policy, it became clear why it has gone largely unchallenged. Without exception, the pet owners I spoke with actually supported the policy.
“The policy, in my mind, is pretty nice,” Brockmeyer said. “If they do catch you, it’s not immediate disciplinary action. It’s just, ‘Hey, get rid of this.’”
In Bush’s view, students whose families live close to Duke can handle pet ownership better than others.
“I’m not saying I’m immune to the rules, but I think I handled it better than most people could… because I live close by,” he said, adding, “Duke has that policy for a reason.”
Central’s where you can get away with it the best,” Brockmeyer said. It’s a sentiment echoed by most current and former pet owners—keeping a pet in an apartment is far easier than hiding it in a dorm room. But for every trend, there’s the counter-trend: Students keep pets on West and East Campuses as well.
***I met Russell Kennedy* at the door of his West Campus dorm room, and he invited me into a spacious double. Inside, the beds were made, and his roommate was propped up on a pillow, absorbed in a game of Fallout. It wasn’t the kind of room I could imagine a free-running dog living in, but for the caged hamster that Kennedy was about to get, the place could make a perfect home.
“Last year, some guys across the hall from me were joining a frat,” he explained. “And they got a pledge pet…Agucii…I took care of him for a weekend…and when they came back, they just never really bothered to get him back.”
Kennedy was a freshman at the time and continued to take care of Agucii through his stay on East Campus. He is currently waiting to get him back from a friend who took the hamster home for the summer.
“Taking care of a hamster in a dorm setting was not an issue, because he was just easy to take care of, not a big deal at all. And I enjoyed it, because it was fun to have a pet,” Kennedy said.
For someone who fell into pet ownership, Kennedy is incredibly attached to his hamster.
“I just like holding him, you know what I mean? He’s just a cool little hamster.” He laughed. “We got mad tight. I would Skype people, and just keep him on my face… he and I have a mutual understanding. Agucii was a bro.”
Kennedy wasn’t alone in having a pet his freshman year. While living on East Campus, Brockmeyer and Rich shared a hedgehog which they obtained by trading away a bonsai tree.
“In all honesty, he didn’t do much,” Brockmeyer told me.
But Rich disagreed with his roommate.
“Actually, one of my friends—she’s a junior now—she went to my high school, she came to visit us…. She saw the hedgehog, she liked it a lot, and that was one of the reasons she wanted to come to Duke,” he said.
While the hedgehog seemed like a fun pet when the two roommates got him, the attachment they now feel with Buddha never really formed.
“We tried,” Rich claimed. “I mean, if he was friendlier, things would have been even better.”
If there’s one pet Duke students haven’t had much luck with, it’s the humble hedgehog. Senior Allen Hawkes, who currently lives off campus, owned a hedgehog for a few months when he lived on West Campus his sophomore year.
“It was actually passed down from a number of friends,” he said. “Somewhere along the line, they realized that the hedgehog was kind of strange.”
While Brockmeyer and Rich told me that their hedgehog was usually agitated, it seemed that Hawkes’ problem was more severe.
“It would just spike people constantly, and hyperventilate all the time,” he said. “I was just going to take care of it over Christmas break, but then the person just left it with me… because basically, it was just the devil hedgehog. No one wanted it.”
Hawkes was stuck with a pet that nobody wanted, but I could hear a note of caring in his voice. He wouldn’t just throw him into the forest—he needed to find him a better owner.
“You know the game assassin? I tried to get a big game of that started, with a hundred people, and I said that the prize was going to be this hedgehog,” he laughed. “So I could give it away, you know? But eventually someone who was really dedicated to hedgehogs came along and decided to take it.”
I asked Hawkes if there was anything he enjoyed about having the pet.
He thought for a moment and replied, “the only thing is, sometimes girls would come over, and be like, ‘Oh, you have a hedgehog? That’s so cute!’ And then they’d look at it, and… it would make these noises, like ‘huhuhuhuhuhuhuhu,’ nonstop. That’s all it did when it was awake…. It was really hard to study.”
Hawkes’ is a rare case. Most owners at Duke have a powerful bond with their pets, and a few years ago, HDRL tried to accommodate some students who didn’t want that connection to prevent them from living on campus.
“About five or six years ago, Campus Council was advocating for pets to be on Central. We actually created an area on Central for two years called the feline-friendly community, where if you lived in that particular complex, you could bring a cat,” he said.
The experiment was abandoned after those two years due to what Gonzales claimed was lack of interest. It’s not entirely surprising. Most of the pet owners here seem content to keep their pets secret, and almost enjoy the fact that they’re going against the grain.
“There are so many kids on this campus, and if everyone had a pet, it would just smell awful,” Kennedy said.
Although many pets remain under-the-radar, Rich noted that an increasing number of his friends have furry, feathered or scaly friends.
“This year I know about more people having pets, legal and illegal, than last year,” he said.
The pets of Duke are a happy secret—if their owners are criminals, they are mothers or fathers as well. It’s a sentiment not often vocalized, but the eyes of all these owners betray true caring and a powerful connection with their pets.
As our interview drew to a close, Rich lowered Buddha back into his terrarium. Without a backward glance, the python slipped around a statuette, tongue jutting into the air, and descended onto his wood chip bed. We were all looking at him. Brockmeyer and Rich hadn't stopped smiling.
“So you love the python?” I asked.
Rich stepped back from the amber glow of the heat lamps, shared a glance with Brockmeyer and looked me in the eyes.
He replies, “Absolutely. Oh, absolutely.”
* Names have been changed to protect sources.