How many emotional support animals is too many? | On Culture | Chicago Reader

How many emotional support animals is too many? 

Columbia College recently rejected a student's request to live with both a dog and a cat.

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Avi Schwab

You may have noticed recently that there are a lot more animals (usually, but not always, dogs) in places where they didn't used to be. Like on the floor in front of the airplane seat next to you, sans carrier, eagerly awaiting takeoff.

You might wonder why Fido is no longer in the cargo hold, where most pets used to fly. The answer is likely to be that the pup is a certified emotional support animal, whose presence has been deemed medically necessary for the well-being of its master.

And that's the same reason dogs, cats, bunnies, and birds are showing up in college student housing, rapidly replacing the only creature from home most schools have historically allowed: the goldfish.

But should emotional support animals go to college? And if so, how many should each student be allowed? The Columbia College Chicago student newspaper, the Chronicle, recently featured a story about a student driven out of campus housing because her request for an emotional support dog—along with the emotional support cat she already had—was denied.

Before we get into the details of that story, a few definitions are in order. Emotional support animals are a relatively new phenomenon that has been growing in popularity over the past decade. They're not the same thing as service animals, like seeing-eye dogs, which have been around on campuses and everywhere else for a much longer time. Service animals are trained to perform specific tasks. They fetch, guide, or pull, and can even sense when a dangerous medical episode is under way or about to happen and summon help. Their utility and necessity are obvious.

Emotional support animals are not required to have any special training. But they're not just pets, either. Their role is to provide a psychological anchor for their owner—a connection and a presence—that enables the owner to function in an environment he or she wouldn't otherwise be able to handle.

We're not talking here about the everyday comfort pet owners derive from their mutual love affair with Muffy or Spot. (Having once owned the world's most adorable dog, I can attest to the depth of that.) According to proponents, the emotional support animal is more like a prescription drug: it has an effect on the psyche of its owner that makes it possible for that person to live a normal life.

Federal regulations govern the rights of people with emotional support animals. They're allowed to take their animal with them on airplanes, and thanks to the Fair Housing Act , must be given "reasonable accommodation" in most rental housing, even when the property owner has forbidden pets. In order to exercise that right, they're required to have an evaluation letter from a mental health professional that explains their condition and the animal's function. It's the equivalent of a prescription.

Like so many other government regulations, these can be exploited. Emotional support animals fly free on commercial airlines, and evaluation letters (along with paraphernalia like ID tags and personalized harnesses) are available through several websites. The letter, which requires only a phone consultation with a mental health professional provided by the websites, can be had for about $100 to $150.

Getting permission to bring an emotional support animal to campus housing, however, is likely to require an explanation from a health-care professional who's actually been treating the student (that's a requirement, for example, at Roosevelt University, which like other Chicago-area colleges and universities allows emotional support animals). In the Columbia College incident, the student, sophomore Lindsey Barrett, says she had documentation from the therapist she sees regularly.

And Barrett had a well-documented need. Originally enrolled as a Columbia freshman in 2015, she says the same anxiety, panic attacks, and depression that her support animals now help with caused her to take a medical leave halfway through her first term. "I was hospitalized," she says, "and when I got out, my brothers got me a cat, and he became my support animal." When she returned to Columbia for the spring term last year, the cat, Leonitis, came along.

This year, living in a four-bedroom apartment at the Arc, a historic apartment building affiliated with the college (that doesn't allow pets), Barrett requested permission for a second support animal, a dog. She began the request process in the fall with Columbia's Services for Students With Disabilities office. Barrett says she knows of at least two other emotional support animals in the building.

Barrett says her letter from her therapist indicated that the two animals would be serving different purposes: while the cat would counter her depression, the dog would help with panic attacks. "The doctor's note is supposed to be like gospel," she adds. "But they ignored it and launched their own investigation, and concluded that I'm not disabled enough to get both of them." Barrett says she finally went to dean of students John Pelrine. Although two of her three apartmentmates submitted letters in support of the second animal, she says Pelrine ultimately told her it was "a space issue," and denied her request; she could keep the dog or the cat, but not both.

In February, Barrett moved to an apartment in Bronzeville, where she's able to keep both Leonitis and Theodore, her 16-week-old puppy, a shepherd-Doberman mix. She says that while Leonitis has been a help in getting her out of bed on days when depression wants to keep her down, Theodore's already fending off her panic attacks. "He can sense my anxiety, and whenever he does, he comes up to me and will not leave me alone until I sit down with him. And I have that grounding moment where I have to calm down. And as soon as I'm done, he's off, being his puppy self," she says. "He's already worth his weight in gold to me."

Columbia spokesperson Anjali Julka, citing student privacy regulations, responded to questions with this e-mail statement: "Columbia College Chicago's student housing policies and procedures are consistent with federal and state law, including without limitation, the FHA pertaining to assistance animals, and the ADA, which governs service animals. The college carefully reviews each situation on a case by case basis."

Chronicle editor in chief Zoë Eitel, in an editor's note about the story reported by Olivia Deloian, wrote that "Columbia needs to re-evaluate how it's adapting [to changing times]," and has a responsibility to support the mental health of its students.

Barrett has asked Columbia to refund her spring term rent and tuition, and originally turned to Equip for Equality, a disability legal and advocacy organization, for help. Barry Taylor, Equip for Equality's civil rights team vice president, told me that because of limited resources, they "can't accept every case" and "we've not accepted [hers]." Barrett says HUD referred her to the Illinois Department of Human Rights, and IDHR spokesperson Teagan Shull said this week that "We have a charge filed. It is pending investigation."   v

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