Exams, end-of-term essays, all-nighters, endless stacks of paper notes, llamas. All of these are quintessential aspects of the students’ finals season experience at the University of California, Berkeley.
Especially the llamas.
Berkeley, like many U.S. colleges, has warmed up to having support animals on campus for students who need emotional or mental care.
At least five times a semester, the university pays over $700 to Sonora-based llama breeder George “Geo” Caldwell to have some of his cud-chewing compadres help stressed-out students calm down.
And llamas aren’t the only animal on campus, according to Emma Brown, ’16, who is currently a sophomore at Berkeley.
Brown said that in addition to the llamas that come for tests or special events such as the suicide-awareness walk, many students have their own animals in their dorm rooms.
“One of the housing buildings that’s for sophomores is pet-accessible,” she said. “My depressed friend was able to bring her cat there, which was really cool for her to keep her (spirits) up.
“(And) someone on my floor last year had a service dog for mental or emotional support.”
Although the llamas are uniquely Berkeleyan, many other colleges both allow students to bring their pets from home for support and plan ways to bring animals to students.
One such college is another UC – University of California, Santa Cruz.
Dogs are sometimes brought to the Student Health Center, the on-campus site for therapy and resources on sexual and mental health, according to Fred Xu, ’17, who is a freshman there.
Furthermore, many students, including Xu’s friend, Scott, apply to get their own animals in their dorm.
This shouldn’t be surprising considering pet ownership in the U.S. has more than tripled since the ’70s, according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals
But many colleges still don’t allow pets in dorms.
UC Santa Cruz, for example, has a “no pets policy” – except for “fish in a 10-gallon or smaller aquarium,” according to the UCSC Housing Policy page.
So how is it that more and more colleges, UC Santa Cruz included, are welcoming tail-wagging pals?
Yesterday’s banned pets are being let in as today’s “emotional support animals” (ESAs).
ESAs are, as defined by the UC Santa Cruz resources page, “animals that individuals with disabilities utilize for emotional support, well-being, or comfort.”
These are different from the service animals, such as seeing-eye dogs, that have been allowed by colleges for decades and can go anywhere on campus with their disabled owners.
According to the American Kennel Association, there is a difference between the aforementioned comforting companions, ESAs, and service animals. ESAs may in fact provide support, but service dogs are specially trained to perform certain tasks, such as helping a blind person walk.
As blind and physically disabled owners usually require a guide to travel around their campus, service dogs are typically allowed everywhere on a campus. ESAs, although not able to reap all the benefits of service-animal status, are a loophole in universities’ “no-pet” policies.
And, according to Xu, “anyone who wants to get a support animal can get one.”
ESAs are not limited to dogs and cats, either.
Rabbits, snakes and rats have joined the more mainstream cats and dogs at Oberlin College in Ohio, which Isabelle Leavy, ’17, is currently attending.
And Lauren Larrabee, ’15, said that she’s “seen everything” – hamsters, snakes, fish, lizards, rats and even a porcupine – at Colorado College in Colorado Springs.
However, whether the applicant wants support from Fido or from a fish, students must follow certain steps, regardless of the college.
Leavy’s roommate, Julia, is currently in that process.
“You’ve got to fill out a lot of forms and get permission or recommendation from a therapist or doctor back home,” Leavy explained.
In addition to filling out papers, students must know the exact animal they want, arrange the animal’s shots, know the animal’s disease history and provide proof of need from a medical professional, sometimes just a signed letter.
These obstacles aside, getting an ESA isn’t free.
Although Julia hasn’t gone far enough in her application process to fork out the needed funds for her furry friend ($300), that too will come.
Larrabee’s best friend, Erica, has a Chihuahua mix named Frida as her registered support animal for her mental health, “something to keep her going and look forward to,” Larrabee said.
But the price for this positivity wasn’t cheap; Colorado College has a $300 fee that goes along with getting a support animal.
Part of that money, Larrabee said, is to tag dogs with a special “support animal” certification on their collars as well as insurance against any messes animals make on the carpet.
But Xu’s friend Scott will pay a much lower fee – $40 – for the same extras.
Fees aside, dogs are an integral part of the culture on many campuses, especially Larrabee’s.
“The amount of puppies and dogs I see every day and everywhere is huge,” she said.
Larrabee, who works at the Worner Campus Center (the front desk and switchboard of the campus), said that one of her friends who works in the dining hall brought her Pomeranian to Larrabee to hold at the desk for a few minutes.
But the front office, student dorms and the great outdoors aren’t the only places to find dogs. At Colorado College, dogs can also sit in on lectures.
Larrabee said some of her friends regularly bring their support dogs, cats and bunnies to class – as long as they ask the professor ahead of time (a requirement if the professor has previously brought his or her dog to class before).
Restrictions on ESA animals still exist, though.
“I can’t watch my friend’s dog or else I’ll get in trouble, which is a real bummer,” Larrabee said.
“One time, Frida stayed in my dorm, and then I got written up for it because she was barking.”
Animals must also remain in crates when their owners are not in the room.
Leavy said that at Oberlin, support animals are allowed only outside and inside of dorms, not inside of any classrooms or libraries.
And since Oberlin is “cold and miserable” for most of the year, Leavy said she doesn’t see the animals often.
Also, at Berkeley, the school and students aren’t the only ones to bring puppies around.
Brown said that some sororities and fraternities raise money for philanthropies by getting a company to come and bring puppies to quad and then charging people a dollar if they want to hold one.
“They’re puppies, though, so who would say no?” she said with a laugh. “Even if it was more than a dollar, they’re too cute and happy to resist.”
Thus even those without ESAs can enjoy the benefits of having them.
“It’s super awesome to be around an animal and to hang out with it,” Larrabee said. “It brings so much happiness to everyone’s day; these guys are a distraction and something for us to take care of.”
But cuteness and cuddliness aside, are support animals worth the sometimes hundreds their owners have to spend?
According to Jessica Vando, ’92, (a clinical psychologist who specializes in treating adolescents and adults), the answer might very well be yes.
“Studies have found that simply the act of petting animals releases an automatic calming chemical response – serotonin, falatin and oxytocin – which all help elevate moods,” she said.
“And that’s from only petting!”
She added that research has proven that support animals can assist patients with severe head injuries and even Alzheimer’s with recovering memories.
“They’re like members of people’s family,” she said.
These “happy escapes” from reality, she added, have been shown to lower anxiety, give comfort and reduce loneliness.
There’s no denying that college students need this zoologic escape.
The American College Health Association revealed that in 2016, 58.4 percent of students reported having “overwhelming anxiety”; 36.7 percent said they had “difficulty functioning due to depression”; and 9.8 percent admitted they had “seriously considered suicide.”
Obviously, college students need something for their mental health. And, as Larrabee said, no animal is out of bounds; ESAs can be anything from a prickly porcupine to a scaled serpent – “it’s all totally valid.”
“There’re studies on how fish are calming and therapeutic,” she said. “Snakes are the same way.”
Skeptics may argue that all students deal with stress and that not all students who qualify for ESAs actually need them. After all, many of these students are bringing their pets from home to campus, and Xu said he doesn’t see the difference between the support animals and pets.
But Alexa Mathisen, ’17, a freshman at Wellesley College in Boston, said she disagrees.
“It isn’t up to someone else to decide whether someone ‘needs’ their service animal or not,” Mathisen said.
“As someone who is good at hiding their own mental health issues, I think it is hard to say when someone needs their animal or not.”
Vando agreed, adding that support animals can also encourage students to seek therapy.
“Animals can act as a catalyst in the therapy process, break the ice and reduce the apprehension to go and seek therapy,” she said.
“It’s possible that a college student might feel more comfortable saying they need a service dog for anxiety as opposed to saying they need to go to therapy, as there is still stigma for mental health treatment.”
Benefits aside, Mathisen, who said she has been told she is eligible for an ESA, has opted out.
“It’s hard to properly raise an animal in a dorm room,” she said. “Oftentimes, I don’t have the time or energy to exercise them the way dogs would need.”
In addition, Mathisen, who frequents New York City (an almost four-hour drive from Wellesley), said that finding dog-sitters would be stressful.
Vando acknowledged the “logistical drawbacks.”
“This is an animal you must care for,” she said.
“Most college students have enough to deal with themselves, and most work or have a part-time job.”
Furthermore, neither pets nor ESAs live forever.
“Coping with the death of an animal is incredibly hard,” Vando said. “What if that happens during finals week?”
If students don’t have their own but instead pet the llamas or dogs brought in from outside, they won’t have to deal with this hurdle.
However, Vando said that that method does not provide the same type of relief.
“In the case of a personal support animal, there is a real relationship,” she said. “In the other case, the animals just help people de-stress and take a break, the same way taking a yoga class or doing meditation would.”
“They aren’t equivalent, but it’s a similar idea.”
One thing’s for certain, though: support animals are on the rise.
Vando said that when she was a graduate student at the University of Washington in Seattle, “nobody had animals.”
But now, University of Washington has a support-animal policy analogous to other schools.
Vando said that some of her own college-age patients have asked her for notes to get support animals.
“Times change and move,” she said.
Even Country Day is proof of the public’s increased credence in ESAs.
The law-enforcement chaplains who came to the school after the death of seventh-grader Connor Burns were accompanied by a St. Bernard named Sophie; a year-and-a-half later, the grief counselors brought in therapy dogs after pre-K assistant teacher Ariyana Jones’s death.
Though both of these were to help with tragic events, there’s no telling what the limits will be for ESAs in the coming decades.
Just imagine a high school quad brimming with cats (instead of rats), in which dogs gambol over railings to get to class with their students right after the bell rings.
Or maybe just llamas on the backfield before finals, at least.
—By Chardonnay Needler
Originally published in the May 8 edition of the Octagon.