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‘Animals can bring joy’: Emotional support animals provide students with extra sense of comfort

<p>Selective living groups Cooper House and Wayne Manor were formerly housed in Crowell Quad. All SLG housing was moved to Edens Quad for the 2021-22 academic year.</p>

Selective living groups Cooper House and Wayne Manor were formerly housed in Crowell Quad. All SLG housing was moved to Edens Quad for the 2021-22 academic year.

Senior Lorayna Hinton doesn’t have a roommate, but she’s not alone in her single-person dorm room in Few Quad. 

“I adopted her from a shelter, and she’s about five years old now,” Hinton says, tilting her phone camera down towards the floor. “She’s just laying on top of my backpack now.” 

The sides of a black backpack are barely visible beneath a disgruntled mound of gray fur. Hinton dips off camera for a second, then reappears with a big grin and an even bigger cat in her arms. She introduces the cat as Pepper.  

“She’s fluffy and she likes to look out the window at the people,” Hinton says.

Hinton is one of many students at Duke who keep an emotional support animal on campus. Duke Housing and Residence Life defines an assistance animal, or emotional support animal, as an animal that provides necessary emotional support to an individual with a mental or psychiatric disability. 

“We’ve seen an exponential growth in the last decade of emotional support animals as an accommodation on campuses,” said Cort Schneider, the director of the Student Disability Access Office.

Under the Fair Housing Act, housing providers are required to allow reasonable accommodation involving an assistance animal; “we treat it like any other accommodation,” Schneider said. 

Students say applying for an emotional support animal is relatively simple. Sophomore Isabelle Watkins, who adopted her cat Fern in July 2021, said the process was easy because SDAO is very accomodating. 

“I feel like getting an emotional support animal is kind of like admitting that there’s something wrong with me, or that I need extra help,” Watkins said. 

However, she believes the benefits of keeping Fern outweigh the stigma.

“They’re really important, especially with the pandemic and how we’re cycling between online and in person school,” Watkins said. “Having an animal in the room while I’m stuck in my room all day taking classes is helpful. She’s really comforting and sleeps with me every night.”

The process starts by going to the Disability Management System website and accessing Accommodate, the student portal used to request accommodations. Once request forms are filled out and current documentation and historical records are sent to SDAO, Schneider’s job begins. 

The student applicant meets with an SDAO advisor to discuss their needs. As with any accommodation, the advisors look for “the presence of a disability, how it’s impacting the student and how it will relate to what they’re asking for,” Schneider said.  

SDAO will then inform HRL of the accommodation. The student must fill out the Assistance Animal Requirements and Agreement form, which delineates the criteria for the assistance animal as well as the individual’s responsibilities for keeping one. 

Hinton says that HRL gave her a wheelchair-accessible single despite her not having a wheelchair, which gives her and Pepper more space. 

HRL reserves the right to assign an individual with an assistance animal to a single room without a roommate. Watkins said that it would be more difficult to keep Fern if she had a roommate, but with all of the housing accommodations, problems are few and far between.

“I once had someone come to my room who was kind of afraid of cats, but other than that, it’s been pretty positive,” Hinton says. “Mostly everyone loves her!”

Living with an emotional support animal can provide a sense of structure and comfort to college life. One Duke student, who requested to remain anonymous, explained how owning an emotional support animal keeps them accountable.

“It’s helpful to have [an animal] to care for, because he has needs too,” the student said. “If I’m in a bad state, the need to care for him gives me the motivation to get up.”

Unlike service animals, emotional support animals aren’t expected to perform any tasks. Their presence alone provides the owner with therapeutic benefit. However, students have found that their support animals can be pretty perceptive. 

Along with their owners, it’s important to ensure that the emotional support animals are being taken care of as well. 

“Make sure that you have enough time to take care of the animal’s emotional needs, not just your own,” Watkins said. 

Caring for an animal could include regular walks, or ensuring that it has enough toys to play with. Hinton demonstrates by pulling out a long plastic stick with a feather dangling from the end and taunting Pepper with it. 

“Animals can bring joy,” Hinton says, laughing as Pepper swats a white paw at the bait. “An emotional support animal is a prescription for a person.” 


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