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Emotional Support Animals Are Not a Joke

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You see it all over the news.

Crazy people trying to take their emotional support peacocks on planes or their support kangaroos to McDonald’s. The masses love to complain about how people are just slapping an internet-generated badge on their pet and bringing it around with them where it shouldn’t be and calling it emotional support.

Heck, Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard even did a skit for College Humor about bringing their emotional support velociraptor on a plane with them economy-class style. I’ve even heard it here on campus when someone joked to me that they “had an emotional support bandana.”

So emotional support animals are just a good butt of a joke, right?

Wrong.

Emotional support animals are not just pets, and they’re not fake. Emotional support animals provide a real health benefit for those who own them.

I am living proof of those benefits.

Full disclosure, I suffer from mental illness. I have been diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GED) and Panic Disorder, and am being treated for an eating disorder and phobias. These conditions are serious hindrances in my life. In fact, the actual definition of GED is “Severe, ongoing anxiety that interferes with daily activities.”

Without sounding self-pitying, I can tell you that life with anxiety can really suck. When you cry over getting a B- or have a panic attack when you simply don’t have homework to do, life at school can be very stressful.

I almost dropped out of college my freshman year because my anxiety was unmanageable. Sometimes my parents picked me up at 3:00 in the morning because I had a debilitating panic attack. I went home every single weekend because life at school was just too exhausting. I begged professors to let me stay back on class field trips because the thought of being on a bus gave me anxiety months prior to the trip.

My life was spinning out of control, and all I wanted was my cats and dogs at home to help me calm down.

All my life, pets had been a source of comfort. The routine of care, the affection they provided, and the constant idea of having something to look forward to when I made it through each day was more beneficial to me than any medication.

Mine is not a singular case. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), 40 million adults have been diagnosed with anxiety, 75% of whom experienced their first symptoms by the age of 22.

Life in college is stressful, overwhelming, and wild, but for some students with anxiety it’s also unmanageable. That’s where emotional support animals can come in.

After I made it through that tough first year, I decided I needed more help than just therapy and medication to solve my campus-driven anxiety. That’s when my parents and I decided to get an emotional support animal.

Now, I’m the proud owner of a handsome lop-eared rescue rabbit named Elliot. Thanks to him, I have not once gone home in tears and trembling from a panic attack this entire year.

My life at school with Elliot is different because I don’t feel as lonely, have a standard routine of care, and can direct my negative emotions into positive feelings of affection with my rabbit. By working with the Academic and Accessibility Support Center to register my rabbit, I am finally able to enjoy my time at school and act like a normal college student.

And just to be clear, my rabbit is not my pet. Sure, he’s like a pet to me, but he is fully registered with Moravian College for my own health.

Moravian does take precautions to ensure that students do not take advantage of the privilege of having an animal on campus. In its policy about service and support animals, the College  states that “emotional support animals are not ‘pets’ but rather considered an accommodation. Federal policy requires that reasonable accommodation be given to persons with disabilities and they should have an equal opportunity to use or enjoy a dwelling. An Emotional Support Animal is directly related to the functional limitation of a person’s disability.”

Therefore, students requesting emotional support animals must complete series of tasks to gain permission to bring an animal onto campus, including getting a doctor’s recommendation, veterinary records and plans, and the approval of all others in the residence space.

So no, these animals are not just pets but a means to improve students’ lives at Moravian.

On our campus currently, there are a number of emotional support animals. While the Academic and Accessibility Support Center has to keep the status of these animals confidential, I know of four other animals living on campus. I am very pleased to know that other Moravian students have found an opportunity to improve their lives here and have seized it.

Often, I feel guilty about bringing my own rabbit to campus when so many other students pine for their own pets at home. My dad helped show me why emotional support animals should not be frowned upon when he said, “Elizabeth, you have to deal with problems that other people never even think of. You do, and there’s little you can do to change that. So, if an animal is going to make you feel even a little bit better, you should not feel guilty for taking the opportunity. Everyone has their own battles, and they have to fight them in different ways. You’re entitled to an extra bit of help on your way.”

I am thrilled to be at an institution that is so understanding and forward-thinking about mental illness and the issues it poses to students. I never was looked down on or scoffed at by the  College for having my animal on campus, so it begs the question: why do people scorn those with emotional support animals? Why is it popular to make fun of a beneficial accommodation for those with mental illness?

Sure, some people try to take advantage of the good faith people put in the system of emotional support animals. Sure, sometimes the animals are unconventional. But that is no excuse to make jokes about the entirety of the system, especially when animals  are only meant to help.

Joking about emotional support animals is equivalent to joking about the real problem of mental illness, and that’s just not funny.

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