By Lindsey White
Assistant Editor of Arts and Entertainment
Eleven months after seeing a TikTok that challenged her view of rats, Jessica Pointer, a junior early childhood education major, brought two rats she nicknamed “the germs” to her campus apartment as emotional support animals.
“Animals in general provide emotional support,” said Pointer. “Rats are the goofiest animals that I have ever had. They keep me laughing, and they keep me on my toes. I feel like every day they’re getting smarter and learning new things.”
Pointer is one of three students on Trevecca’s campus with an accommodation that allows them to have an emotional support animal on campus.
Higher education institutions have reported more requests for emotional support animals on college campuses. According to the Mayo Clinic, up to 44% of college students report experiencing symptoms of depression and anxiety, and 75% of those who struggle with depression and anxiety are reluctant to seek help.
In the same way someone might need physical accommodations like a wheelchair, emotional support animals are managed as accommodations, said Michelle Gaertner, associate dean of student success.
“They are really necessary for the student as a kind of therapeutic tool,” she said.
Students must undergo a process for obtaining emotional support animals by talking with disability services.
“We determine it on a case-by-case basis, focusing on the severity level of the student and how this will help in their therapeutic process,” said Gaertner. “No student’s story is going to be like the other students’ story, so it’s important to know exactly what is going on with that student.”
Several factors play into the process for approval, such as required documentation from a therapist and making sure the animal is safe for the entire campus, said Gaertner.
Pointer’s rats, Bacteria and Amoeba, provide her with mental stimulation, energy and motivation to take care of herself, she said.
“They’re super smart and easy to train, which helps to stimulate their brains as well as mine, which is something I considered in my research in choosing them,” said Pointer.
In her research, Pointer also learned that rats need to live in pairs because they are social animals and without a partner can self-mutilate.
“I was totally wrong about them. Before, there was this whole notion about how rats were these nasty creatures or they’re really gross. But some of the facts I heard in those first one or two videos was how they’re cleaner than cats and dogs, and they’re super intelligent,” said Pointer.
Gaertner noted the difference between service animals, which have specific jobs and tasks, and emotional support animals, which are tools for helping students cope.
Her office is charged with making sure students have the support and accommodations they need to be successful in college according to laws and regulations that govern that process.
“It’s a process, and we want to engage students in that process,” said Gaertner. “My prayer is that students are getting the help they need.”