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Animal dorm

By Elizabeth Armstrong MooreContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / March 15, 2005


When Danielle Gibbs was mugged at knife-point near her dormitory in the fall, she didn't know how to heal. A sophomore who had walked the paths along the small, old, well-manicured campus countless times without incident, she quickly found that there were no peers who could empathize with the feeling of violation, no campus support groups to guide her through the aftermath.

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But somehow, coming home every day to her two Netherland dwarf rabbits, Fleur and Elphie, Ms. Gibbs slept more soundly at night. Maybe it was the company, or the snuggling, or simply the responsibility of caring for two little creatures. But, Gibbs says as she plants a kiss on Elphie's furry face, "I don't know what I'd do without these little guys."

After several students and new president Wendy Libby - who is rarely seen without her black lab Abby - discussed the emotional advantages of having pets at school, Stephens College, a small all-female liberal arts school in Columbia, Mo., kicked off 2004-05 with a newly designated eight-room "pet floor" in Pruny Hall, becoming one of only a few colleges in the nation to allow pets in dorm rooms.

Much has been written in recent years about both pet therapy and the current crop of college students: a generation that seems to rely more heavily on parental support - both financial and emotional - than did previous generations. And as this new generation struggles to adapt to college life, some college administrators are pondering a new role for companion animals on campus.

Most schools have long agreed that there are compelling reasons for not allowing pets in college dorms: funky smells, exasperating sounds, and even the notion that confining a pet to a dorm room might constitute animal cruelty.

But permitting pets in dorms is not the only way to let students enjoy the benefits of contact with an animal, some administrators are now insisting.

"I'm adamant that college students don't have pets," says Mary Muscari, a professor of nursing at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania. But she does put several small dogs together in a room with freshmen a few times a semester to help the students combat loneliness and stress. Such encounters are good for all involved, she insists. "One of the most important things about these activities is that it is not only good for the students, but for the pets."

A handful of schools are adapting programs similar to Dr. Muscari's pet circle. And while it's still rare to allow pets in dorms, there are exceptions.

At the State University of New York at Canton, Mohawk Hall has had a "pet wing" since 1996, where pets are allowed to roam freely while their owners are home. Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Fla., has a similar policy, and cats can be found in certain residence halls at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass. Even Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland allows birds, gerbils, hamsters, and nonpoisonous snakes in its dorms.

While there is no central database of pet policies on campuses around the country. Most schools have strict policies against pets of any kind, and even off-campus landlords are known to be sticklers about the no-pet rule, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education.