Sep 9, 2008
Dorm Companion #2: Cat
Posted in: Life & Culture
Currently, the most emailed article on boston.com is this piece on MIT's four cat-friendly dorms (please note that the other seven are to be completely free of pets, save fish), along with an accompanying video. Take a look...
MIT students take on some furry roommates
By Tracy Jan
Globe Staff / September 9, 2008
CAMBRIDGE - Like most college freshmen, Arielle Lubin had a litany of tasks to check off before classes began at Massachusetts Institute of Technology last week, including assembling her course schedule, picking up her textbooks - and buying a scratching post.
The 18-year-old from New York's Long Island is starting school with an unusual roommate: a 3-month-old orange tabby named Amadeus.
Lubin adopted the stray kitten over the summer after learning that MIT allows cats in four of its 11 undergraduate dorms, a rare amenity that school officials say they instituted as a compromise while cracking down on students who harbor a menagerie of other animals.
What started off as an experiment at MIT several years ago has now taken hold in the campus culture, administrators say. The felines add a warm touch to a high-pressure environment of daunting problem sets and computers that can't love you back.
Cats also have put MIT at the forefront of the growing number of colleges that are al lowing pets in dorms, and drawing attention from schools across the country seeking advice on implementing pet programs.
"I never thought I'd be able to bring a cat to college," said Lubin, who spent her high school years working in a veterinarian office and has two older cats at home. "I've grown up with them my entire life. They're playful and cuddly and they make me happy."
Over the years, MIT housing officials have found dogs, frogs, snakes, turtles, rats, weasels, rabbits, and litters of kittens in dorms, said Karen Nilsson, senior associate dean of residential life. Other colleges have discovered ferrets, hamsters, hedgehogs, and even scorpions living amid students. Animal house, indeed.
Most colleges forbid pets, except goldfish, because of concerns about allergies, injuries, cleanliness, and pet neglect. In the past, Nilsson and her staff fielded complaints about foul odors and damage to the dorms caused by animals.
"We had pets everywhere," Nilsson said. "I don't think there's a school in the city that doesn't have them. They may have a no-pets policy, but I guarantee you that someone's hiding one in their dorm room. Before you know it, you have a gerbil colony."
Fed up with the pet wave, she struck a deal with students in a 2000 pilot program that allowed up to two dozen cats to live on campus if students promised to adhere to the quota and abide by a "cat clause," enforced by a student "pet chair" in each of the four dorms.
MIT is the only Massachusetts college known to allow cats, which were chosen over dogs because they don't need to be walked, don't bark, and can better fend for themselves while students are in class.
The cats must be registered with the pet chair. That means providing a photograph, written consent of suitemates or roommates, and health records including proof of vaccinations and spaying or neutering. Students must keep the animals indoors, although during a Globe reporter's recent visit to a cat dorm, one kitten meowed loudly and consistently from behind a locked bedroom door.
More than a dozen colleges across the country welcome pets in dorms, and the number of pet-friendly schools appears to be on the rise, said Tony Pals, spokesman for the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities. Pets can help students relieve stress, say some college officials, who hope that happier students could lead to improved academic performance and lower dropout and transfer rates.
Students also tout the social benefits: Their animals help them meet friends, land dates, and draw hordes of visitors to their dorm rooms.
"Students today have higher expectations for campus living amenities, and there's greater institutional focus on the growing mental health needs of students," Pals said.
Dr. Gary Sachs, a psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital, said more colleges should consider allowing animals in dorms because research indicates pets are a soothing influence on humans. Today's students are so wired to technology that introducing pets to the college environment would help balance out students' lives, he said.
College students, though, don't always make the most responsible pet owners, said Kris Neindorf, director of residential and campus life at Wellesley College.
Students there are allowed nearly all types of pets except dogs, cats, and reptiles, as long as all the students on a floor agree via an anonymous pet vote. While students tend to vote down birds, Wellesley dorms have been home to the occasional parrot, canary, and parakeet. Students also can keep mice, gerbils, and guinea pigs.
Residents have on occasion decided midyear to vote an animal out if it becomes a nuisance, making noise or leaving droppings in common areas. College officials have also had to call animal control to remove pets that were neglected over long school breaks.
"Sometimes the custodian will hear it crying or scratching to get someone's attention because they're hungry," Neindorf said. "At that point, we vote it off because they are being abused."
At MIT, pet chairs help ensure that the cats fit into the college environment. Sarah Wikman, a senior in that role in Random Hall, which allows cats on two floors, said the pets act as a social draw for the dorm. Students often leave their bedroom doors open so the cats can wander the halls as they please.
"They can really lighten the mood around MIT, especially when students have been working many, many hours on problem sets," said Wikman, who did not keep pets growing up because her father had allergies. "They can play with a cat for a couple of minutes and just de-stress."
On the third floor of Bexley Hall, which houses 120 students, Amadeus has quickly adjusted to dorm life. He likes to sit in Lubin's violin case while she practices. He plays in the bathtub or in a cardboard recycling box. The three other suitemates have learned to keep the main door shut so the cats don't escape into the halls.
Lubin's roommate, Janice O'Brien, said she chose to live in Bexley Hall because of the cats, even though she doesn't own one. "It's just great to have somebody who's happy to see you," she said.