Confidential Critters

Ferrets and hedgehogs and rats—oh my!

by Kate Wihtol, editor; illustration by Teal Francis, staff artist

“It was the spring of 2007 and Emma Juniper* was becoming more and more excited about coming to Colorado College in the fall. On top of picking out her meal plan and bedspread color scheme, Emma had also made plans for the ultimate college companion: a pet of her own to ease the isolation and melancholy that come with a new and unfamiliar home. “People need something soft and warm and loving,” Juniper said. “It relaxes them, allows them to have a better college experience.”

Little did Emma know that her new rat, Valentine, would draw her into to one of the college’s most clandestine communities: the society of secret pets. In bringing a pet into her Loomis dorm room freshman year, Emma managed to dodge the college’s newly restrictive pet policy. “When I asked the college for permission, they still allowed pets,” said Juniper. “So [Valentine] kind of got grandfathered in.” While the rest of her hall mates yearned for a playmate of their own, Emma relished in the delight of her distinctive privilege. “Freshman and sophomore years I was the most visible person with an animal, so I got to know every other illegal animal in the building.” As it turns out, our little campus is thriving with all sorts of confidential critters.

Dogs, cats, rabbits, snakes, rats, ferrets, guinea pigs, hedgehogs, sugar gliders—you name it—CC students just want someone to play with. Upon visiting the Humane Society over second block break, freshmen Mipsy Jones* and Geraldine Smith* couldn’t resist the appeal of owning a cuddly creature. “We were just going to play with puppies, but we fell in love with this bunny.” Now Jones and Smith are the proud owners of Rime, a dwarf bunny named after the “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” by English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. “Some schools have programs where they bring in puppies and kittens during finals week to relieve the stress,” Mipsy said. “Now we have our own little thing to play with when we’re stressed . . . you just play with him and he makes you happy.”

As American universities face an increasingly competitive recruiting market for top students, several colleges are setting themselves apart by providing a pet-friendly atmosphere. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the State University of New York at Canton allow cats in some dorm rooms. Eckerd College in South Florida, Washington & Jefferson College in Pennsylvania, and Stephens College in Missouri each provide an entire dorm for pets and their student owners. Eckerd even allows snakes. But animals residing in Stephens’ “Pet Central” dorm may be the most pampered of all college pets. The college now provides amenities for all your animal’s needs: a fenced-in backyard, a doggie spa, a doggie daycare run by work-study students, and a Pet Council to handle questions related to the college’s pet policies.

At Colorado College, however, students’ pet options are strictly limited to “fish/crustaceans that live underwater,” as described in the Pathfinder. Though birds and small rodents were permitted under the college’s former policy, ensuing damage and allergy problems led to the policy change in 2007. “We see ruined carpet due to animal urine and chewed up baseboards in the apartments from rabbits and things,” explained Sara Burst, Area Coordinator for Residential Life and Housing. “We also have a lot of turnover in some of our rooms. If someone had a rabbit and someone allergic moves in, it’s hard to remove the scents and smells.”

Burst estimates that the college encounters less than ten pet-related incidents each year, typically resulting from a frustrated neighbor or a naïve pet sitting in the windowsill. “We ask what a reasonable time would be to remove the animal, often twenty-four to forty-eight hours. Then we’ll work with the student to ensure that the pet gets a good home. I’m not positive, but I assume the animals often go to friends off campus. That’s what I hear from most people.”

In response to this policy, many CC students go to great lengths to keep their treasured creatures a secret. After the initial hurdle of moving the animal’s cage and food inside the dorm, pet owners still have to cover up the smells and messes left by their furry friends.  When Mipsy and Geraldine take Rime for a stroll, they smuggle him “down the back stairwell, through the kitchen, into the lounge and out the back patio” of their freshman dorm in hopes of avoiding the RAs. “Luckily he doesn’t smell,” said Geraldine. “You can smell the ferrets downstairs from the hallway.” Emma Juniper, who has now housed two rats and two guinea pigs, always took the extra effort to conceal all evidence of their existence. “When I cleaned the cage I would dump the shavings at the bottom of the trash can, or go to another hall if I was super paranoid.”

As the unconditional love of a pet repeatedly outweighs students’ concern for damaging the college’s property or setting off the allergies of their neighbors, many residents are questioning the college’s policy. “It’s the dumbest policy because people are going to have pets anyway,” Juniper explained. “Obviously cats and dogs shouldn’t be allowed, but why not little caged animals?” Others propose a more tolerant policy of increased transparency and regulation, where pets are registered and their owners are held accountable. “As long as it’s not a sanitation issue I think it’s fine,” suggested Geraldine Smith. “You could have designated rooms for pets, and if you don’t have allergies you can stay in those.”

But is college really the best time to have a pet? Do our animals suffer as we hit the books and party hard? The typical college lifestyle is busy and erratic, leaving little time to attend to a pet’s well-being. Yet this same responsibility can teach students an invaluable life lesson: the amount of vigilance required when another being’s life is in their hands. The merits of pet ownership aside, Residential Life remains concerned with the nitty-gritty of the issue: our pets destroy the college’s property and make other students sneeze. So while animals at CC may never see the luxury treatment of doggie spas, pet-lovers still yearn for the acceptance and accommodation of their college companions.

*Names have been changed.


Confidential Critters (PDF)

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