Support pets offer comfort to students

William Oliver


On a rainy night last winter, Tyler Whitehead, a senior music education major from Ozark, heard a faint noise coming from his back porch. When he went to investigate, he found a new best friend: a kitten. 

Considering the storm and the kitten’s cries, Whitehead chose to keep the animal, eventually naming him Smokey Quartz. Issues would arise involving the lease agreement for Whitehead’s rental home, the landlord and the rules regarding pets.

 “The landlord came in one day, found him (Smokey Quartz), and I received an eviction notice,” Whitehead said. 

To avoid eviction and a pet housing fee, Whitehead consulted a mental health professional through U.S. Support Animals (USSA) – an emotional support animal (ESA) and service animal registry featuring 24/7 legal assistance for pets and their owners. He was deemed qualified and had Smokey Quartz registered as an ESA.

Jennifer (who wished to not disclose her last name), a service representative with USSA, said college students make up 15 to 25 percent of their clientele.

The company arranges consultations between pet owners and medical professionals where symptoms are discussed, a diagnosis is made and a professional letter is provided by the doctor if the owner is deemed qualified. 

This ESA-qualification letter can give the animal rights to fly with the owner on a plane, while also waiving any pet fee required by their landlord. 

Legal support for ESAs and their owners is supported by the Fair Housing Act, which states that no landlord can discriminate against a tenant with a medically-recognized impairment.

Some college students desire to own animals while in school. The mental and physical health that comes with owning a pet is beneficial for the students, but with just four percent of universities allowing pets to live in campus dorms without an emotional support animal or service animal registration, some students either sneak pets in or have them registered if they are qualified. 

Section X of Troy University’s housing policies limits students by only allowing one kind of pet: a fish in a manageable aquarium. This rule even applies to those sneaky students with more common pets, such as dogs and cats. 

Around 87 percent of college students move off campus, according to an article from The New York Times exploring expenses that come with living away from school dorms.

When students move away from campus, they can have more freedom with their pets, but some landlords and property owners see pets and their potential to cause damage as just more money leaving their pockets. 

“Most landlords don’t allow pets for two reasons, the primary being additional wear and tear – more feet, claws, bites – and the second being outside pets inevitably turn into inside pets,” said Adam Drinkwater, a qualifying broker at Landmark Realty in Troy. He oversees about 200 student housing units all over the city. 

Drinkwater said a one-time $400 pet fee is typical of his properties, but depending on the house’s age, condition and landlord, some rules can be adjusted to appeal to a tenant’s individual situation.

Different housing units across Troy have different rules regarding pets, but students seek the benefits that come from owning an animal.

“Because I’m in college I’m away from family a lot,” said Sabrina Cook, a sophomore music education major from Dothan. “With having a pet, it kind of feels like you’re coming home to a little bit of family.

“It’s the best feeling in the world to come home to a nice, slobbery, welcoming face.”

Cook lives with her puppy, a 7-month-old basset hound named Maizy Mae, who has been registered as an emotional support animal for six months.

Hannah Stinson, a sophomore nursing major from Mobile, has owned her rescued miniature dachshund, Maybelle, for about two and a half years. Stinson said Maybelle substantially benefits her life as a college student.

“I love being able to take a few minutes out of studying – or when I get home from a long day of school – to play with her or take her for a walk,” Stinson said. She resides in a mobile home park called Forest Acres, where residents are not required to pay a pet fee.

Some students experience severe anxiety and hold their pets as a lifeline. Morgan Colley, a junior biology major from Wetumpka, said she looks forward each day to being comforted by her animals.

“I have extreme anxiety to the point where I can’t leave my apartment at times,” Colley said. “Just them coming and sitting in my lap while I’m doing stuff is super helpful.”

The two cats – Star, a long-haired calico, and Jay, a gray short-hair – have provided mental stability for Colley. She resides with them at Shady Oaks Apartments, where she doesn’t have to pay the typical $300 fee because of Star’s ESA status and an agreement with the landlord requiring no payment for Jay. 

Because of the busy nature of college, some students look for pets that require less maintenance than their usual counterparts. 

“A fish is a responsibility, but not as much a responsibility as a dog or cat,” said Tatem Marie, a sophomore mathematics education major from Schönenberg-Kübelberg, Germany. “I can’t cuddle my fish – which is kind of sad – but also my fish can’t follow me upstairs and scratch at my door or tear my curtains.”

Marie and her 3-month-old betta, FINley GILLbert Priddle-Warminsky, reside at Collegedale Apartments, where tenants can own a fish and not be required to pay the $300 fee.

For Logan Vonada, a junior music education major from Milton, Florida, and his ball python, Artemis, the relationship has some different qualities than one would find owning a dog or cat.

“Personally, I don’t spend much of my day at home,” Vonada said. “She (Artemis) is perfectly fine with spending all day alone inside of her enclosure.

“The only thing she requires daily is water, and she only eats (frozen, then thawed mice) once a week. This makes it extremely easy to take care of her and not have to worry about neglecting her. Also, having a pet that doubles as a necklace or bracelet is pretty cool, too.”

Vonada resides in a mobile home park called Hunters Mountain Mobile Estates, where he pays a $250 pet fee.

There are also students who wish to bring their pets to school, but something hinders them from doing so.

Brianna Hogans, a sophomore music education major from Bonaire, Georgia, said her parents’ attachment to the dog is why she has not brought her 1-year-old black Labrador-Blue Heeler mix, Basil, here to Troy to live with her.

“Monetarily, I would do whatever it takes to pay for him,” Hogans said. “I would want to get out with him and be more active.

“He’s my gigantic teddy bear, and I’m more thinking about him than me.” 

Hogans also said that she would hope to have Basil registered as an emotional support animal if she were able to bring him to Troy.

Also, any animal – dog, cat, bird, turkey, kangaroo, etc. – can qualify to become an ESA because they require no specific training, according to USSA.

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