Sophomore Anna Rickard has a 65-pound secret living in her bedroom. Rescued in May, her white-pawed boxer, Romeo, is an Emotional Support Animal (ESA).
“He’s just a big old sweetie,” Rickard said. “He’s the love of my life––the only man I will ever love.”
Rickard and Romeo live in the Webster Village Apartments (WVA). According to Webster’s ESA policy, Romeo is required to stay in Rickard’s 9 ½ by 10 foot bedroom at all times. If she is in the apartment, he is allowed to roam freely within the confines of her bedroom. If she is absent, he has to be kenneled in the crate under her bed.
Rickard said she works two jobs in addition to being a full-time student. She said she felt the policy discriminated against larger animals.
“Webster doesn’t see [ESAs] as animals,” Rickard said. “They see them as a treatment. Webster doesn’t care that I can’t come home in the middle of my six hour shift to let the dog out.”
Webster’s ESA policy has been in development for over three years. It is still not finalized nor available on Webster University’s website.
Erica Ellard, the director of the Academic Resource Center (ARC), hoped the policy would have been done before the start of this school year. She does not know when it will be officially finished and posted on the website.
The policy is stored in the ARC. ARC staff worked closely with Housing and Residential Life to develop the university-specific guidelines.
Webster’s policy must comply with the Fair Housing Act, a federal law that prevents housing discrimination. Anna Dickherber, the director of Housing and Residential Life, said the law is extremely broad.
“The Fair Housing Act doesn’t give a great deal of guidance in terms of what it means to have an emotional support animal,” Dickherber said. “We know it can’t be a danger to the community, and it has to be part of a treatment plan.”
The only way an ESA can be recognized on campus is through the university’s process. An ESA is not protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), unlike a service dog.
A student wishing to have an ESA on campus is required to have documentation from their medical provider/mental health professional. The ADA Coordinator in the ARC processes the documentation and decides if that student qualifies for an ESA.
Former ADA Coordinator Christy Herzing left Aug. 30, leaving Chanelle Hopman to work as the interim coordinator since Sept. 14. Erica Ellard, the director of the ARC, took over the position’s responsibilities in the meantime.
Ellard said while the policy takes the animals into consideration, Webster’s primary obligation is to the safety of its students.
“The animal’s welfare is the student’s responsibility,” Ellard said. “Our responsibility is to provide open access. We encourage people to think carefully depending on the type of animal that they are planning to bring.”
Dickherber agreed. She said larger animals are held to the same standards as any other ESA, and it is the student’s job to find a way to comply with the policy.
ESAs as Treatment
Despite Rickard’s qualms with the policy, she said having Romeo on campus helps her complete daily tasks. Romeo helps Rickard manage Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and multiple anxiety disorders.
“He wakes me up in the morning and gets me out of bed,” Rickard said. “I hate it, but I’m very thankful for it. He lets me know, ‘Hey, you’ve been sleeping for 12 hours now. It’s time to get up.’”
Rickard is one of fewer than 10 students who have an ESA on campus. More students have requested an ESA, but were either not approved or decided to remove their animal from campus due to the policy’s restrictions, Ellard said.
Senior Chester Bacon is another student who finds comfort in his ESA. Bacon has a 14-year-old cat named Precious who lives with him in East Hall. Precious helps him mitigate the symptoms of his depression, anxiety and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD).
Up until this year, Bacon was a commuter student. He has had Precious since fourth grade, and his therapist prescribed her as part of his ongoing treatment plan.
“I’ve gone through having a therapist for six years in dealing with my own struggles, and my therapist and I decided together that her being here with me would help,” Bacon said. “At the end of the day, she is prescribed to me, and she’s there for me.”
Dickherber echoed Bacon’s emphasis that ESAs are not pets. They are strictly part of a student’s treatment.
“Think about this way: if you had a pill bottle of some sort of medication, would you let your roommates and suitemates play with your medicine?,” Dickherber said. “That’s the same mindset that you have to think about an emotional support animal.”
Bacon said he loved the structure the policy provides.
“I understand why it’s necessary because there are students who will take advantage of a system that they have a place for us,” Bacon said. “Knowing [Webster] is making sure everything is going okay for me, everything’s going okay for my cat, I’m really excited about it.”
Dickerherber said Webster is happy to work with students who need ESAs as part of an ongoing treatment plan. She said the policy should not be seen as a barrier, but as a gateway to success.
“The fact that we have ESAs on campus to me is indicative that Webster does care,” Dickherber said. “In terms of federal guidelines, if a student were to apply for an ESA, we could legally hold them off for months at a time before we would even need to process it. But, we choose not to do that and to process them as they come in.”
Rickard said the policy’s restrictions make her feel as though the university does not care about her as a student or a person. She said she wishes Webster would do more to ensure its most vulnerable students feel supported.
“Do you want a torn up couch or do you want students to kill themselves?” Rickard said. “I know that’s a really extreme way to put it. But for me, that’s kind of what it is, in the most blatant way.”