By Reneé Medina
“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.
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.”
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.
“Morty is 100% my best friend,” the photography major said. “He is super affectionate and has always been there for me since I got him. He is super comforting and always so happy.”
Morty is a rescue dog whose breed is unknown, though the 20-year-old is sure that he is part pit bull.
“I have an ESA because I have generalized anxiety disorder,” JD said. “Morty is able to provide support in ways a human is not able to.”
JD said that Morty is contagiously happy and that he is more popular on campus than JD. Students know Morty by name and the two are always greeted whenever they go out.
“He is able to provide unconditional support and gives me a sense of purpose when I am feeling low,” said JD. “Every aspect of having an ESA on campus is a pro. He provides a distraction whenever I need one, he is super affectionate, forces me to get out of bed in the morning (I often find it hard to get up in the morning) and leave my room throughout the day- he benefits my roommates and friends in the same way.”
“I make sure she’s loved, fed, watered, and sang to,” said 21-year-old Dede, who gave only her first name. Binky, who is a 4-year-old calico cat, has been Dede's emotional support animal for the last four-and-a-half years. Binky is more than a best friend to the gender studies and screenwriting major.
“I call her ‘mother’ or ‘mama' sometimes because she is always emotionally there for me in the way that people usually describe their mom is for them; I’m a very independent person, but she is my rock,” Dede said.
Dede said that people refer to Binky as being beautiful and special and love her company. People can hear when Binky is nearby because she wears bells around her neck as a collar. She also wears a crystal necklace and an angel emblem that says, “protect this cat.”
Binky is also friendly to those who deserve it.
“She never says anything hurtful when I tell her all my secrets because she can’t talk,” said Dede. “Also, I’ve been told I’m not a good singer, but every time I sing, she purrs.”
Dede said that animals can give a kind of physical affection that humans simply are not capable of and makes living on campus more manageable emotionally. Dede finds comfort and solace in her ESA, and they love to get ready together in the mornings.
“When I sit down to do my makeup she sits on my lap and looks at herself in the mirror," she said. "Animals have a certain love in their hearts that is able to connect with us when we feel too overwhelmed to have human connection. She not only brings me joy, but all that are in her presence.”