Hogwarts had it right. Maybe you won’t see many owls or toads on college campuses (then again, that sounds like a great idea) but plenty of other fantastic beasts with important jobs are making campuses their homes. Harry Potter jokes aside, the benefits of interacting with animals on emotional health are backed up by scientific studies and there’s a growing field in psychiatric medicine known as Animal-Assisted Intervention (AAI) used in the treatment of trauma. Bates has its own processes for accommodating emotional support animals as well as service animals. The policy detailed on the college website, in part, states: “Emotional support animals (ESA) may be permitted to reside in the residence hall with a student who has a documented disability as a reasonable accommodation. […] In order to qualify for an ESA as an accommodation, a student must show that the assistance animal is necessary to afford the student equal opportunity to enjoy and participate in the residential life program.” However, this policy is not as straightforward as its language might suggest.
First, it is important to distinguish between emotional support animals and service animals. Service animals are dogs that have been trained to perform tasks or services for disabled owners. Service animals have special rights like being allowed on any property open to the public, including business and college campuses. Emotional support animals provide comfort and security to owners with conditions such as anxiety or depression, but are not specifically trained or certified. ESAs don’t have special access to public places pets are not usually allowed with the exception of housing accommodations. According to Bates’ policy, both categories of animals are permitted if a student goes through the official application process. Technically speaking, Bates is required to allow service animals onto the Bates campus and in housing, even without this policy, because their presence is protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act as well as the Fair Housing Act, and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.
Kelsey Pearson ‘17 is a Bates student with a service dog– an Australian Shepherd named Kiley who has been in Pearson’s family for almost nine years. Pearson says that the process of securing Kiley’s home on campus was emotionally draining and at times left her “distraught, frustrated, sad, and angry.” Pearson wrote to me, “One would think that it shouldn’t be a problem to get ‘permission’ to [have] a service dog on campus, since denying such a ‘request’ would be breaking the law. (I have permission and request in quotes because to me it’s more of letting the school know that I will be having a service dog on campus since technically Kiley is allowed on campus under federal law) However it wasn’t easy for me at all.” Pearson says that Bates requested confidential information about her medical history and asked to personally speak to her doctor before they would consider letting Kiley live with her. It’s important to note, and Pearson quotes The Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity, “a housing provider may not ask an applicant or tenant to provide access to medical records or medical providers or provide detailed or extensive information or documentation of a person’s physical or mental impairments.” While the housing office can ask for supporting documents proving the need for a service animal, they can’t ask to see medical records themselves or ask to speak to their health care professional directly. One has to wonder why the administration seems unfamiliar with laws concerning medical privacy and even finds its own process for evaluating ESA and service animal cases so complicated.
Despite an ill-informed administration, Pearson fought hard and now Kiley has a home with her on campus. How has it been having Kiley on campus? “In short: it has been life changing,” says Pearson, “Whenever I feel sad or stressed Kiley is always there to ground me. I feel the safest and most secure when she is with me because I know she is always watching out for me. Kiley is my guardian angel. Kiley has made the biggest difference not only in my life but for others around me. I constantly get comments from both students and faculty about how much they enjoy petting and seeing her around campus. I only hope now that Bates administration sees how much Kiley has benefitted not only me but the Bates community as a whole.”