The Emotional Support Animals of Purchase College

Updated: Dec 7, 2021

By Reneé Medina

Photo of Abby, Marissa Woods’ emotional support animal (via Marissa Woods)

“Just because my disability is not visible doesn’t mean I don't need an ESA,” said 20-year-old Marissa Woods.

Woods, who is a graphic design major, is spending her time at Purchase with the best company: her pet! Though not just any pet. Abby, who is a rottweiler/hound mix, is Woods’ 6-year-old emotional support animal and has been ever since Woods was in middle school.

Abby provides the extra support and companionship that Woods needs, making her college experience less stressful.

“Abby has been with me through many phases of life,” Woods said. “She helps me socialize with other people.” If Abby were not by Woods’ side, she would be less inclined to talk to others.

She said that having Abby around helps her overcome social anxieties, though she said that Abby experiences a bit of anxiety herself and gets nervous around men.

Woods and Abby smiling for the camera (via Marissa Woods)

Besides this, Woods said that Abby is very friendly.

“She loves going to the mailroom for some reason and she loves elevators,” she said. “She just likes walking around in general and getting pets from random people.” This unsurprisingly makes Abby popular on campus.

Woods has an ESA because she has a history of mental illness including anxiety, which is the most common mental illness in the U.S, affecting over 18% of the population annually. The registry for qualifiers are the standards that need to be met in order to register for an emotional support animal in the U.S.

“It’s a modification to the no-pet policy that the office of community engagement has,” said Lauren Rodriguez, the director of the school’s Office of Disabilities.

Applying for an emotional support animal on campus is a two-step process where students must work with the Office of Disabilities and the Office of Community Engagement regarding the request for the accommodation to bring an ESA on campus.

Students must fill out two forms from the Office of Disability Resources outlining their disability and how their symptoms will be reduced by having an ESA on campus. The other form requests information from a student’s treatment provider who outlines the diagnosis and treatment that the animal will provide. Once those applications are completed, they are sent to the Office of Community Engagement for review.

“We get a notification that’s very general from the office of disability resources that says, ‘such and such has been approved for an ESA. Here are the next steps,’” said Cayla Salazar, director of the Office of Community Engagement. “Our next step is to contact me and OCE, and I get information on a specific animal as well.

“They (the student), have an agreement that they have to sign for bringing an ESA on to campus which basically is just making sure the animal is using the bathroom in the correct places, making sure it’s not a disturbance to anyone else around-that sort of thing,” she continued.

Any student who’s bringing an animal or has an animal in their possession must follow Westchester and New York State law.

“It’s rare that we get something that’s outside of cat-dog sort of things,” said Salazar. “Yea, we have rabbits. But the big thing is making sure that we are aligning with what New York State, what Westchester says can be a domesticated pet.”

Rodriguez said, “When students are requesting the ESAs, they’re connecting them to therapeutic emotional support that the animal provides.” She added that ESAs help soothe the students who experience things like panic attacks and gives students structure because they have to tend to their animals daily.

Regarding the application process, she said, “I don’t think it’s difficult. It depends on your treatment provider and their availability to fill out the paperwork.” This, she said, is why it may seem like a long and difficult task.

Nonetheless, Rodriguez said, “We always will look at any kind of request. People might say ‘pet’ and cross it with 'ESA,' but when you hear their self-report of what it provides for them-it’s definitely and emotional support and they are telling you that it is alleviating symptoms.”

Morty laying in bed (via Jenna Donnelly)

Abby isn’t the only ESA dog on campus who is getting a feel for the college experience.

Morty, who is Jenna “JD” Donnelly’s 4-year-old emotional support animal, has been with JD for four years.