COLUMBIA, MO. — 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.
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.
That's been tough for some students.
"I'd been thinking about moving off-campus, just because I missed him," says Stephens student Shannon Novak of her freshman year without her dog Peanut.
But even then it would be a challenge to find a willing landlord. The sophomore biology major from Nevada, Mo., has only good things to say about having Peanut with her this year - even though she must walk him three to four times a day, rain or shine. "With him around, I'm not alone all the time in here," she says. "When it gets really busy and you're not going out and seeing friends, then there's no social aspect to your day."
For decades the general thinking has been that college students are too busy and too young to take care of animals, says Dr. Libby - and that college is the place where young adults first develop independence and self-reliance as they adjust to life away from home.
One of the most surprising aspects of the Stephens program, she says, is that it was able to happen at all, and she doesn't expect it to become widely popular.
For some students, bringing pets to school is almost like refusing to grow up.
"I know all too well how hard it is to say goodbye to a pet when you go off to college," writes Matthew Reid, an editor at the Massachusetts Daily Collegian in Amherst, Mass. "But when you move into a dorm room, it's a rite of passage, in a way. You are leaving home, gaining independence, and separating yourself from your roots."
Yet some students may need to make that break more gradually, suggests Libby.
"Colleges have had to increase their counseling support for students," she says. "Having pets around does lower the stress level. From our point of view, if that would make a better transition, or help a student stay who might otherwise feel so lonely they might want to go, it was worth trying on a small scale. Although my first reaction was, 'Why would we do this?' my second was, 'Why wouldn't we?' "
The Delta Society, a nonprofit group that promotes the presence of pets in workplaces, says ample research backs up the notion that pets have a calming effect on people of all ages and temperaments.
But animal cruelty remains a concern. At Stephens College, students pay a $200 refundable pet deposit, but they are also required to confine their pets to a kennel or cage anytime they leave their rooms.
All animals must be under 40 pounds in weight, and there is just one small, fenced dog run.
"If [increasing student contact with pets] can minimize stress, we should look into it further," Muscari says. "But people should know there are a lot of things to consider. You might even have the right students owning the animals in the dorms but the wrong ones visiting them."
Despite her doubts about pets in dorms, Muscari is an outspoken proponent of controlled student-pet interaction. "It's simply amazing," she says.
"Animals have no education, but they know exactly what to do and how to do it. Animals have different temperaments, but some of them really have the knack for interaction, for soothing any of us."