First, I would like to say that I had a pet. It died.
Or rather, I killed it.
I didn’t mean to kill it. Sometimes Chicago winter is just too cold for a reptile. But sometimes carelessness leads to untimely loss.
I’d wanted my own pet for a while, specifically a pet snake. In October, I finally bought Sledge, a baby ball python. That also meant I had to care for another being other than myself.
It was December Intersession, and I was going to visit family out of state and wasn’t going to be at my Chicago apartment for the final two weeks stretching Christmas to New Years. We turned the heat off in an effort to save money, and left.
Those two weeks were unusually cold, with daily averages in the negatives. We froze our whole apartment and ultimately our pets. My friend, my support, my Sledge passed from freezing to death, alone, in the arctic tundra I had created.
Returning home to discard of a molding, still partly frozen carcass lead to weeks of guilt and self-reflection. I was a busy, not financially — or for that case very emotionally — stable college student; I could barely take care of myself, so how could I possibly think I could care for another life?
Yet, for college students, owning pets isn’t a rarity. College campuses have seen an increase in the desire for pets to be allowed on campus, with students citing the emotional support pets provide. At DePaul, though, most students live off-campus after their freshman year. They live like trial-testing adults, dealing with campus commutes, rent and food costs. Some students also take on the added responsibility of caring for an extra companion separate from the restriction of university rules.
“It’s kind of weirdly like a good time to get a dog, and I wouldn’t say that for everyone, but there’s a lot of hands to help when needed,” said Calvin Boyle, a junior at DePaul. He bought Winston, his 10 month old corgi, at the beginning of the 2017-2018 school year from a breeder in Iowa. He said that Winston provides not only companionship, but stability with his daily routine.
Boyle, who had grown up with pet corgis, had a goal to be a dog owner by junior year. He saved up from a summer job, and found Winston in a newspaper classified ad. He contacted the breeder, and within a week, he was a new pet owner. When he called to tell his roommates the news, he found out he wasn’t the only one pet hunting.
At the same time, his roommate, DePaul junior Tawny Ruane, was also thinking about adopting a female mini Australian Shepherd — or Aussie — from a farm in southern Illinois. When she found out that the dog was going to become a breeding dog if not adopted, she put down an offer. She waited a bit, but after seeing Boyle with Winston decided to commit, bringing home the four-month-old Juniper.
“I was like ‘what, two dogs?'” said Ruane. “I freaked out a little bit.”
“They each have very different mannerisms and their different personalities really do show through,” said Boyle.
Winston, according to Boyle, is younger and a bit more fearless, having grown up in a busy city. He’s all for attention, but also knows when he’s had enough. Juniper, on the other hand, is a bit more anxious and “quirky,” according to Ruane.
“On one side it’s a lot to take care of,” said Boyle. “On the other side, it’s really helpful to have someone going through the exact same thing at the same time.”
Their days both start at 8 a.m., waking up to feed and take each dog to the bathroom and a short walk. During the school year, their different schedules were actually helpful in having people around at different times to play with and care for the two puppies. Boyle and Ruane actually preferred the flexibility of a college schedule over a nine-to-five position because they were able to spend more time with Winston and Juniper as they matured.
Dogs might be the biggest commitment for college students who are interested in owning pets, but smaller animals can provide the same comfort and support. DePaul student Minna Khan has always loved rabbits — her obsession came from a Toys R Us commercial, with little bunnies hopping around with smiling, happy children. Her family had pet rabbits, and in November 2016 she bought her own bunny, Leo, to live with her in Lakeview. She took him to get neutered in last February. The surgery should have been fast, easy to recover. Yet Leo died not even a week after surgery.
“I was so sad,” said Khan. “I needed another [rabbit] back in my life.”
Khan needed to have a rabbit back in her life, quick. She went to Red Door, an adoption shelter specifically for rabbits, and immediately fell in love with a black Netherland Dwarf furball with dark eyes. Batman quickly became a staple in the Khan house, even becoming a free roam rabbit in the family living room, where he can hop around as he pleases.
DePaul junior Caitlin Stout had a similar adopting experience. Her childhood cat was diagnosed with intestinal cancer in 2016, and she took out a loan to help cover the medical costs. When he died in February 2017, she had wanted to adopt an older cat to take his place, but ended up with two kittens because she wanted to “grow with the them.” She ended up adopting Petronis, a female Russian blue, and Hal, a male short hair black cat, just a month apart, standing by the belief that it is best to get kittens in pairs.
“Sometimes they’re really sweet to each other and sometimes they are trying to murder each other,” said Stout.
Petronis is more mischievous of the two, frequently eating plants, climbing bookshelves or even jumping in the tub after a shower, according to Stout. Hal enjoys fuzzy blankets and cuddling, often sleeping curled under the covers.
“I definitely had a better quarter with them,” said Stout.
Pets and service animals — animals that assist a person with a disability with activities of daily living or continuous company — can help provide emotional support. Mental health issues have been steadily increasing across campuses, with the three top concerns including anxiety, depression and relationship issues, according to the American Psychological Association (APA). Over 40 percent of college students report experiencing anxiety and 36 percent report depression, according to a 2013 survey. One third reported difficulty functioning due to these factors.
Batman helps as a stress reliever for her anxiety. “It’s so stressful to be stressed,” said Khan. “People can figure out what works best for them, but [pets] can be great for your mental health.”
Campuses — including DePaul — often bring trained therapy dogs on campus during exam weeks, but why just pet a dog just during finals week when you can find that comfort daily (because who said stress and anxiety is limited to testing)?
This support includes companionship, physical touch and emotional response. A 1985 study found that specifically adult students showed lower blood pressure levels when stroking a dog versus other leisure activities such as reading or chatting. Each student said that having that physical comfort — whether by holding, petting or sleeping with at night — has helped improve their mood, especially after stressful school days.
“I tend to get really overwhelmed with finals and I have anxiety, so coming home and just petting them is relaxing,” said Stout.
Boyle had similar experiences and said the responsibility of having another life dependent on yours — even just a pet — gives a sense of meaning and importance to each day.
“At the end of last year I was really really anxious and just not doing well as far as my mental health,” said Boyle. “Speaking from my own experience it’s been really helpful having him. Even if there’s a morning, which hasn’t happened in a while, where I’m like ‘I can’t get out of bed, like I just can’t today,’ I have to because I have a dog.”
Each student also described a comfort in returning home to warm greetings from their pets, whether the wag of a tail, head butting or caressing from a cat or a rambunctious bunny scampering around feet.
“No one’s more excited to see you,” said Boyle.
Yet DePaul’s urban campus creates additional challenges for student pet owners. For Winston and Juniper, that includes walking, which can sometimes be a feat with untrained puppies sharing city sidewalks with commuting workers, students, and, god forbid, other dogs. Patches of grass to play in are scarce, but luckily Boyle and Ruane live within walking distance to the dog park at Diversey and Lincoln.
Pets can also become an issue with housing in the city. Most buildings allow for smaller animals like cats or hamsters, including a section for pet ownership in the lease contract or requiring notice after purchasing a pet. Dogs, especially medium-to-large size breeds, can be a bit more challenging. Their current apartment allows pets, but Boyle said that having an extra four-legged friend could easily turn challenging when looking apartment hunting.
“We can’t just pick up and live anywhere now,” said Boyle.
While most students at DePaul live off-campus, the rules for on-campus housing restrict the ownership of pets, except for fish. According to the DePaul Guide to Student Housing, unapproved pet or the failure to remove it from campus housing violates the housing agreement, and can result in additional fees or the termination of a student’s housing agreement. They do approve service and assistance animals provided that they meet certain policy requirements, but also hold the right to remove any animals they do not feel fit these qualifications.
These furry friends can also limit roommate situations when others are allergic to certain animals. According to Khan, she had to start taking allergy medicine after getting Batman, perhaps due to his new hay diet, noticing episodes where she would sneeze uncontrollably and her throat would tighten. This is where owning a snake worked well.
The cost of caring for a pet is another responsibility for college students. Students may have loans to pay, working part time or full time to cover these costs. Since most DePaul students live off-campus, that may also include factoring in food, rent, utilities and other amenities.
Khan said the cost is “what you sign up for” when becoming a pet owner. She paid an initial $100 adoption fee for Batman, and takes him to the vet for routine check-ups twice a year (roughly $80), with teeth and nail clipping an additional $20. She estimates she can spend anywhere from $50 to $100 monthly simply on fresh veggies — contrary to Bugs Bunny’s belief, kale is actually better than carrots — and $20 roughly for hay. The yearly cost averages $960, on the low end.
When we first tried to schedule an interview, Batman was having some digestive problems. According to Khan, Batman has G.I. Stasis, indigestion problems that where the digestive system slows down or ultimately stops. The condition is not uncommon among rabbits, but in rare cases can result in death. Batman hadn’t been eating, was sluggish and hiding under tables according to Khan, which alerted her to the problem. She took him to the vet, which advised baby gas drops.
Stout also ran into similar health problems, and prices, when adopting Hal and Petronis. Petronis had worms, twice, costing $350 for each round of medicine. Hal had an eye infection before adoption, and she spent an extra $150 for an eye exam and medicine. Stout also did not have pet insurance at the time, paying in full for each kitten. She said she was prepared for the bills when they came, but that’s the risk of getting shelter kittens.
“I prepared for the cost when I got them, but I wasn’t prepared for both of them to get sick and for this long,” said Stout. She also pays roughly $10 a week on food and $8 biweekly on fresh litter for an average yearly cost of $784.
Juniper was $550 to adopt, and Ruane only had to pay for two additional shots which she pays per visit. Since Winston was younger and came from a breeder, he cost roughly $1500 but was “worth it” to Boyle. Boyle also had to factor in immunization and neutering costs, which total $45 a month through Banfield Pet Hospital’s pet plan. They estimate each spending roughly $30 a month on food, toys and other supplies.
“It’s kind of just like another bill,” said Boyle. “I definitely see how it could be financially burdensome, but at least for me at this point it hasn’t been.”
For me, Sledge cost roughly $60, and another $75 for his cage and heating equipment. I fed him live mice biweekly ($5 x 26 = $130) and changed his heat lamp bimonthly ($15 x 6 = $90) for roughly a yearly cost of $220.
Preparation was key for the pet owners. Each admit having done research or saved up enough money — and then some — to cover the cost of adoption and any surprise costs.
Pets are an investment, but they foster an emotional attachment and affinity akin to having a child yet with a shortened lifespan. Most of these companions will follow their current college-student owners into their thirties, navigating adult life at their owner’s side.
“It’s just my life now,” said Ruane.
Companionship and connection can be hard to find not only in college, but also in trying to establish oneself as an adult. Pets offer stability and support for students as they fly solo, searching for jobs, moving or learning to support themselves.
“I feel like there’s even more uncertainty after you graduate,” said Boyle. “I think a lot of it has to do with that we have our own place, and that’s not always the case with a lot of other college students.”
For Stout, the joys of owning a pet outweigh the responsibilities.
“They are definitely a responsibility and you have to be aware of the costs, but I don’t think it’s such a responsibility that it takes away from my schooling,” said Stout.
Perhaps I am the foil in my own story — the college student who couldn’t, the one who fell under responsibility. I didn’t mean to kill Sledge, but I still did. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t love him, or that he didn’t in his own slithering, scaly way love me back.
I still haven’t gotten another snake, mostly because I want to honor Sledge and his importance in my life, even if for a short time. He was feisty and shy, much like myself. I would greet him whenever I got home, often sitting on my bed and talking to him through the glass. I would let him coil around my arm and hold him in my lap, his scales warm on my skin. He was there for me, and I let him down.
Sometimes having another living thing reliant on you, happy to see you, is enough to make your presence feel valid. Pets provide support and love, something that can be hard to find or even harder to remember.
“You’ll have them for the long run, but it’s worth it,” said Stout. “Animals are best friends. We don’t deserve them.”
Header image by Madeline Happold