Well, it’s a fairly common sight at Middlebury, especially in the vicinity of Millikin Residence Hall where Ada Santiago ’13 and her pet bunny Fugu live in a suite with three other students.
The College permits students to have “small animals” other than dogs, cats, snakes and ferrets in their dorm rooms, as long as they are confined to “appropriate aquariums or small cages at all times.”
And while Middlebury’s policy may seem fairly liberal, other colleges across the country are now allowing dogs and cats (and small animals, too) as a way to help students adjust to college life away from home.
Last June, the New York Times published a story and an accompanying blog post about the growing number of colleges that are putting out a welcome mat for pets. They include Washington & Jefferson College in Pennsylvania, M.I.T., Eckerd College in Florida, SUNY-Canton, and Stephens College in Missouri.
The first media outlet to notice the trend toward pet-friendly campuses may have been USA Today. In September 2008 the columnist Sharon L. Peters wrote that new pet policies on campus “seem to have emerged in response to a pet-loving society and from recognition that animals can reduce stress and make acclimating to college easier.”
Reducing the pressure of college life is exactly what Fugu does for Ada Santiago and for her friends. “Life at Middlebury can be very, very stressful at times, but with a pet like Fugu I can chill out with him anytime I want. Hanging out with him is very stress relieving.”
Santiago consulted Middlebury’s pet policy before applying and, once she was accepted and assigned to a double in Hadley Hall, she contacted her soon-to-be-roommate via email to see how she’d feel about sharing their room with a caged rabbit. (The roommate did not object.) This year Santiago lives in Millikin and one of her suitemates, Steven Dunmire, says, “Having Fugu in our suite is something new and different for me. And of course playing with him is an awesome break from schoolwork.”
Once when Santiago was out of the dorm, there was a fire drill and Dunmire had to carry Fugu in his cage out of the building. Afterward he realized that caring for Fugu causes Santiago to be more responsible. “She’s not just taking care of herself; she’s responsible for this living creature that needs her attention everyday.” And having a pet is a good way to meet people. “They are great ice breakers,” Dunmire observes. “I’ve never asked Ada, but I bet that having Fugu here helped make coming to college easier for her. He definitely made it easier for me.”
Many Middlebury students are accustomed to seeing Santiago walking her pet rabbit on a leash. During a recent sojourn around Pearsons Hall, at least a dozen students stopped to admire Fugu or pet him, and some even bent over, picked him up (with permission), and held him. “Fugu is very people friendly,” Santiago says.
To an observer it appears that Fugu is also quite keen on grass, trees, and shrubs. Here’s what happened one sunny afternoon: Santiago took a few steps, tugged gently on the leash, and Fugu veered off in the direction of the nearest grass (for food), trees (for shade), or shrubs (for cover).
This pattern continued for several minutes and their progress was minimal, which prompted Santiago to explain: “He understands the concept of walking along with me, but he’s also a very stubborn rabbit. And he gets distracted very easily. Sometimes we can make it to Sunderland [Hall] from here in 20 minutes; other times it can take an hour. So I often walk him places and then carry him back.”
Santiago’s family in Brooklyn adores rabbits. Their first bunny, Velvet, lived to be 11 years old, and Ada has had Fugu, a two-and-a-half-year-old Netherland dwarf, since he was eight weeks old. Her parents just got a new bunny, as yet unnamed, and Ada has endeavored to train her rabbits to walk on a leash at Prospect Park, just a short subway ride from the family’s apartment on the Williamsburg/Bushwick line.
Aside from her interest in rabbits, Santiago plans to major in psychology, has a deep curiosity about autism, and uses American sign language (which she is quite passionate about) to converse with friends on campus.
But when she’s walking Fugu, she tries to focus on her pet and not think about academics or anything else. “It’s my special time with him,” she says. “Sure, people here know me as the girl with the rabbit, but I don’t mind. Just look at Fugu. Isn’t he super cute and cuddly?”