Gobblerfest 2018

A dog attendee at Gobblerfest, Aug. 31, 2018.

Virginia Tech, like many college campuses, accepts emotional support animals (ESA) and service animals (SA).

Newman Library, Squires and even dormitories allow emotional support animals. According to Virginia Tech’s Services for Students with Disabilities (SSD) who handle all animal request forms, ESAs are defined as “physical and emotional support to individuals with disabilities.”

There has been much controversy over ESAs and the dubious services they provide. Many argue against ESA credentials and their overall legitimacy to occupy public spaces like shopping centers, movie theaters and even airports. One mother is filing a $1.1 million lawsuit after her 5-year-old daughter was mauled by an ESA in Portland’s airport in hopes to lessen ESA abuse with stricter background checks.

Nevertheless, ESAs continue to be recognized by mental illness professionals as well as leading organizations in the psychiatric field like the American Psychological Association.

ESAs and SAs roles are often the center of confusion for many who mistake ESAs simply as pets. However, the principal difference between the two is their training background.

ESAs provide relief solely through their physical presence to a person suffering from a mental disability. Different from SAs, ESAs have much broader responsibilities catering toward their owners which allow them to partake in everyday activities like going to the grocery store or movies.

SAs are individually trained to perform specific tasks for individuals with disabilities according to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Certain job profiles can include guiding an individual who is blind or keeping a child with autism from wandering off. Different from ESAs, SAs are restricted to either canine or miniature horses while emotional support animals have a more versatile selection. SAs are protected under the ADA which prohibits the “discrimination against individuals with disabilities,” stated by said law. It set the precedent for those disabled to legally use SAs.

Similarly protected under federal law, the Fair Housing Act (FHA) legalizes ESAs. According to the FHA, ESAs furnish their owners with needed support in the “private setting of the home and do not require training.” However, “these animals are not needed in the public spaces covered by the ADA.”

Necessary papers to register an ESA at Virginia Tech include a letter of recommendation from a mental health professional and a Housing Accommodations Request Form available on the SSD website. Documentation is crucial to having an ESA on campus.

Anyone impacted by ESA presence — roommates, professors and even strangers — are legally allowed to ask for documentation upon request; however, it is not permitted to inquire about the owner’s specific disability.

SSD offers on-campus accommodations to students for ESAs. Decisions are determined by a “case-by-case basis” according to SSD but nevertheless abide by federal law in following the FHA.

Request forms must be completed and turned in at least 30 days prior to when the students plan to bring their desired animal if a student already has his or her housing settled. ESAs on campus are confined to the designated room of the owner and are enforced to not occupy any other residential building except for their own. ESAs are not permitted to enter any dining halls with the exception for Cochrane Hall for sanitation reasons.

Tentatively, time varies for each case and most often permission to have an ESA may not be granted until the following semester after a request is filed.

These animals are not just confined to dogs but can range from any pet of choice, even crocodiles. Despite sometimes perceived as outlandish, ESAs have become widely acceptable among many other colleges.

Students at Virginia Tech can attend classes and study beside animals. Lecture halls and other private buildings like student lounges enable ESA access with approved request.

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