Fight or flight: exotic emotional support animals invalidated by university policy

esa article edward benner
Edward Benner/THE REVIEW
Eta provides her owner with support for anxiety, however, she is not recognized as an ESA by the University.

BY Music and Society Editor

Cradled in a blanket, Eta the African sideneck turtle pokes her head out of her shell to look around. She is a fugitive.

As a result of the university’s decision to strip students of their medical rights to have emotional support animals deemed as “exotic” in residence halls across campus, Eta was secretly transferred by her owner and is living in a separate dorm. She is now being babysat by a friend of the student who has chosen to remain anonymous.

Eta is a refugee until she can be picked up and taken away for good for her own safety. Her owner is nothing short of livid after being torn from her prescribed animal.

In the information packet that the university’s Office of Disabilities Service (DSS) provides, Emotional Support Animals (ESAs) are defined as: “animals that provide emotional support and alleviate one of more symptoms of a person’s disability.” While a Service Animal is specifically defined as a dog — or in some instances, oddly enough, a miniature horse — there are absolutely no qualifications for the species of animal that can qualify as an ESA.

By the loose definition that DSS provides, Eta is a valid and legal Emotional Support Animal. Eta’s owner struggles with anxiety and having the turtle is calming, assisting her in states of panic.

“She’s already helped me prevent panic attacks and get through things,” Eta’s owner says.

Similarly, another university student has used an “exotic” emotional support animal to help her cope with a mentally challenging time in her life. An unnamed student keeps a leech in her dorm as an ESA. In an email, she revealed that her leech has helped her through dark times.

“I got my leech two years ago at a time when I needed to be a physical provider to a living thing,” she writes in an email. “As in my body being alive kept my pet alive too, and I can honestly say I’m not confident I would have stayed alive without that purpose.”

Unfortunately, in spite of having notes from her psychiatrist defending her keeping a leech as an ESA and federal registration, the student has been involved in a persistent battle with Residence Life and Housing (RLH) and DSS. According to her, RLH told DSS to deny her leech ESA status due to it being an “exotic pet.”

When asked for a comment on unconventional and “exotic” Emotional Support Animals, RLH claimed they are “not the permission givers for ESAs” and cited DSS as the on-campus organization who has conversations about ESAs.

DSS declined an interview. Instead, they sent a PDF of information that covers their classifications of ESAs and Service Animals. As referenced above, there are no specifications as to exactly what kind of animal can be categorized as an ESA, just so long as the animal is able to alleviate the symptoms of a disability within its owner. By that definition, the student’s leech fits DSS’s definition of an ESA perfectly.

Exotic emotional support animals are beneficial in conjunction with and as substitutes for medication and are fully legitimate. The university, however, seems to think otherwise, considering dogs and cats to be the only legitimate animals.

The UD Residence Life and Housing website says that fish are the only animals to be kept in dorms as pets, and “Emotional Support Animals (ESAs) and Service Animals must be approved by the Office of Disability Support Services (DSS) prior to the animal entering the residence hall.”

Looking at the DSS website and the information they provide offers little by means of clarity. While they refuse to define exactly what kind of animal can be an ESA, there are obviously specifications in place, seeing as a turtle and leech who have proven to be beneficial to their owners’ mental health are seen as controversial and unwelcome in residence halls.

Eta’s owner followed protocol and contacted the DSS office over the summer to make sure everything was in place for her to properly and safely bring Eta in the coming school year.

“They said a hamster or turtle would probably fine,” Eta’s owner says.

After receiving this information, Eta’s owner got a prescription from her physician, got approval from her roommate, filled out the DSS request and purchased Eta — all proper protocol for approving support animals. The response was not what was expected.

“They denied my application for two reasons: my turtle could potentially have salmonella and could spread it to people, and she is exotic,” Eta’s owner says.

According to the Center for Disease Control, dogs and cats carry and transmit salmonella while being sanctioned ESAs. Dogs also carry tapeworm, hookworm, campylobacteriosis, rabies, roundworm and 15 other diseases that cause human illnesses. Cats carry campylobacteriosis, cat scratch disease, cat Tapeworm and 11 other diseases that cause human illnesses. Reptiles and amphibians, combined, carry three potential diseases total including salmonella. Leeches — although they are parasites — carry none.

Furthermore, cats and dogs produce allergens. Due to constrictions about support animals having to stay in the room, paired with the lack of air conditioning in many dorms, there is great potential for human sickness before even considering their litter boxes.

Two, students are allowed fish tanks of up to 20 gallons for fish pets. The most common fish students purchase and keep are beta, tetra and goldfish — all exotic species. Also, improper tank care leads to cleaning in residence hall bathrooms, placing students at risk by high exposure to salmonella from filters and the aquarium glass.

The university’s policy regarding exotic ESAs is misinformed and puts the mental health of students at a disadvantage. These animals pose little to no health risk and are unobtrusively helping students. It isn’t for the university or anyone else to judge the usage of these animals or deny it to students who genuinely need them: animals are healers.

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