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Students find companionship in adopted pets amid online classes, COVID-19 pandemic

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From left to right: Richard Thomas with his dog Beans, Madi Geiger with her cat Sweetie, Lizzie Wright with her horse Money.

On a winter night in Oklahoma City, snow fell heavily. While kids and parents waited anxiously to find out who would get the next day off, Richard Thomas rushed outside with his roommate, his girlfriend and his new dog Beans.

A snowball fight was quick to begin with missiles of ice flying through the air. While some landed solidly on their targets, others were caught midair by Beans as she opened her mouth wide for a tasty snack of snow.

Even the snowman built by the humans wasn’t safe as she licked and pawed at the parts she could reach. The snow continued to fall, and Beans continued to play.

College students, with newfound freedom and independence, often jump at the chance to adopt a furry friend. However, classes, housing and the unpredictable pandemic pose challenges to college pet owners. The companionship provided, particularly during the loneliness COVID-19 causes, can make it worthwhile.

Thomas, a computer engineering sophomore, had dogs his whole life, so when he moved out of his parents’ home, he was sure he wanted one to join him. 

At the Moore Animal Shelter, Thomas walked past the kennels, and one energetic mutt caught Thomas’s eye. Over four years later, Thomas said Beans is still the excitable dog he picked up from the shelter.

“She still acts like a puppy,” Thomas said.

At first, Thomas said it was difficult to make time for his new pup. He couldn’t play with her nearly as much as he wanted. He worked hard to set aside at least two days a week to take her on a walk and play with her to her heart’s content, even if it was the middle of the night during a snowstorm.

Thomas, as part of OU’s Air Force ROTC program, has duties outside those of the average student. Still, he said his time is now easier to set aside for his pet.

“[ROTC is] no different from any other class for me,” Thomas said.

Madi Geiger, human relations junior, is another OU student with a pet in her life. After looking for an emotional support animal (ESA), a friend contacted her about a cat whose owner had recently passed away. What started as a temporary fostering situation as a favor turned into a new and powerful friendship. 

“When I got the opportunity to take her in, it was perfect timing,” Geiger said. 

Sweetie the 11-year-old Siamese cat had found a new home.

Before classes moved online, Geiger struggled with spending enough time with her new companion. Soon, however, she found a new rhythm that worked for the both of them. Between classes, Sweetie would jump at the chance to play with both cat toys and phone chargers, Geiger said.

“She’ll bat at toys to no end,” Geiger said.

As an ESA, Sweetie is especially helpful. Geiger said it seems like she can sense the emotions of people around her. When Geiger is feeling particularly upset, Sweetie sits on her chest like a weighted blanket until they are both calm and comfortable. 

Not all college students have the typical house pet. Lizzie Wright, biology and psychology sophomore, grew up showing horses in competition and had a particular bond with a horse named Money.

When it was time for Wright to begin college, she attempted to sell Money, but due to a physical injury from his past, no one would buy him. Wright was not quick to give up on him, though. When a friend suggested living on an equestrian property, Wright said bringing Money just seemed like the right thing to do.

A pet horse is not easy, Wright said. She gets up early every morning before her first class to feed him and take care of anything else he needs for the day. It’s been easier since classes moved online. But, there is no internet in the stables, so she has to visit him between Zoom sessions.

No matter what, she finds the time to ensure that Money is happy and healthy.

“It’s not if I can fit Money in there, it’s when,” Wright said. 

Although he is not a typical pet, Wright said Money provides the same quirks people expect from a house pet. He can get upset when he’s not fed right on time but otherwise is incredibly friendly and well behaved.

“He’s pushy for treats because he thinks he deserves them, which he does,” Wright said.

While each pet owner and pet are unique, similarities arise in the logistics of being a college pet owner. One prime example of this comes through financial situations.

“When you’re already a broke college student, you have to make it work,” Geiger said. 

Wright and Thomas had the same sentiment. The three of them provide most of the funds for their pets, but one pet in particular presents extra challenges.

“My parents love Money, but they don’t love the money,” Wright said. 

Still, Wright showed her commitment to taking care of him and providing as much as she could. It wasn’t long until her parents were on board for Money joining Wright on her college journey.

Another logistical problem comes through housing. While Wright was able to move onto an equestrian property and house Money there, it was slightly different for Geiger and Thomas. 

Geiger first had to pay a pet deposit but had it refunded when Sweetie was officially registered as an ESA. Her roommates all love Sweetie and help Geiger out with taking care of the cat when Geiger has to be away for an extended period of time.

For Thomas, the ideal pet friendly living was a challenge he was ready to face. He wanted a home with a good backyard that was close to campus, which he found through online house-hunting, giving him comfort when it came to having to rush home to check on Beans. The yard had become one of his and Beans new favorite places to hang out especially during the pandemic.

“Being able to go outside and play with her is something relatively safe to do,” Thomas said.

In Norman, college students can pick and choose where they adopt their pet with relative ease. One shelter, Norman Animal Welfare, is located less than a mile away from the University of Oklahoma campus.

Norman Animal Welfare Center was established in 2016 and has since facilitated thousands of adoptions for the Norman community. Mark Bechtel, shelter manager, said they still have a long way to go and will continue to learn, especially through the pandemic.

When COVID-19 began to affect small businesses, animal shelters were not excluded. They had to work quickly to adapt to a more virtual and contact-free world, said Bechtel.

Bechtel said the changes they made have actually benefited the shelter as a whole. By making appointments to visit the shelter mandatory, it has given staff more time to focus on the individual potential adopters instead of working to control traffic within the facility. Bechtel noticed this led to not only a happier staff, but happier visitors.

“I feel our customer service has greatly improved,” Bechtel said.

Bechtel said the shelter still has room for more growth. One idea comes from a shelter manager in a different town. There, a group of students involved in Greek life arrived at the shelter and used their social media to advertise the pets up for adoption. 

Soon, every pet in the shelter was adopted.

Bechtel encouraged all college students to look into adopting a pet or volunteering at the shelter.

“It’s an un-utilized resource to college students,” Bechtel said. 

During the pandemic, pets could provide comfort to students. Geiger said holding her pet like a baby, even during Zoom classes, reminded her she wasn’t alone. Geiger said her classmates would also get excited when Sweetie would join the meeting. 

Thomas said Beans provided a great kind of companionship that other college students couldn’t get. While some students would talk to themselves in their apartments, Thomas chatted with Beans and developed an almost comical personality for her.

“She’s like a best friend,” Thomas said.

Wright said Money provides her a great amount of support, too, even when he’s just out in the stables. She describes him as a coping mechanism for life.

“He helps me immeasurably,” Wright said. “He helps me get through each day.”

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