Emotional Support Animals Enter Residence Halls

Summer 2014 started the Emotional Support Animal program at Wilson College. Emotional support animals (ESA) provide comfort and emotional support to individuals in the form of companionship. This makes it easy to confuse them with “therapy animals” or “service animals” on campus.

Sherri Sadowski, Director of Residence Life, says, “We try to stay away from the ‘therapy’ term because it’s a very grey term and causes confusion.”

This confusion comes from the fact that, until recently, the Department of Justice (DOJ) has not provided clarification on what defines an emotional support animal in their Fair Housing Act (FHA).

The ESA program was not started because there were requests for the college to provide such a service. Changes to the FHA law required landlords to allow ESAs. Since Wilson provides student housing, they fit under the term “landlord” and must abide by FHA law.

The law defines an emotional support animal as “an animal that is necessary to afford a person with a disability an equal opportunity to use and enjoy a dwelling when there is an identifiable relationship or nexus between the person’s disability and the assistance the animal provides.”

An individual and animal must have a connection beyond the owner-pet relationship. There must exist identifiable proof that the animal’s presence is beneficial to the individual’s well-being.

FHA law does not cover service animals. Instead, service animals are covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). ADA law defines service animals as “dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities…Dogs whose sole function is to provide comfort or emotional support do not qualify as service animals under the ADA.”

In regards to services animals, Sadowski says, “Service animals are specifically trained to provide a service to their owner that the owner is not capable of providing.” This means that the individual has a physical disability that requires constant assistance, such as a visual or hearing impairment. The service animal is trained to provide that service and allowed to accompany the individual anywhere and everywhere.

This is different from ESAs. Sadowski explains, “Emotional support animals are not trained. Their support is by mere presence.” This means that the animal has not been trained to provide a service, such as guiding/directing. Its main purpose is to provide stress relief or emotional support in the form of companionship and is not allowed anywhere other than the individual’s dorm room.

If the animal in question is canine or an animal that requires outside exercise, it is allowed to occupy the campus grounds. However, owners must bring them in and out of public spaces without stopping. This stipulation respects the rights of individuals who have allergies or phobias by bringing the animal quickly through the halls. It prevents the spread of dander through the air and limits contact with people.

After FHA allowed ESAs to reside on campus, there has been an increase of ESAs on Wilson’s campus as well as other college campuses.

Emotional support animals are not just pets. While they give love and affection to their owners, they also provide a legitimate service.

Because policies are reviewed every year, Sadowski would appreciate feedback from residents and emotional support animal owners on the program. Members of the Wilson community may contact Sadowski regarding the program at sihle@wilson.edu.

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