April opens her window and makes a clicking noise with her tongue. Ten meters outside the Yale residential college, a plump female squirrel named Lucky perks her ears and scampers over to the third-floor window.
Lucky, whose hazelnut coat is shaggy from recently giving birth, climbs a nearby tree and expertly crosses a bathrobe belt that April — whose name has been changed to protect her privacy — connected from her window to the branches. Standing on the windowsill, Lucky nervously scans the single bedroom, neatly furnished with sheepskin rugs, a plush sofa and potted yucca trees.
“I don’t understand why people are scared of squirrels,” April said as she cracks an almond in her hand. Lucky — now closer — eagerly steps across the room and climbs her leg. “They’re just little creatures like bunnies.” Lucky sniffs at the treat, settles down on April’s lap and allows her tail to be stroked as she chews loudly.
Although April’s particular affection for urban squirrels is unusual, to say the least, her desire for companionship, affection and a general “home-sweet-home” feeling at school is not.
Especially at a place like Yale.
Pets, students say, can help balance the frenetic pace of life at the University.
“It’s such a pressure cooker,” agreed Carrie Toole ’08, who owns two cats. “It’s a positive feedback loop when you’re stressed out all the time and interacting with stressed people all the time.”
But Toole said she keeps herself sane by spending time with her cats.
“Instead of pausing from reading to check e-mail or some stupid Web site, I’ll go dangle a string in front of my cat,” she said. “Having a funny little cat walk around and do stilly things makes me laugh all the time.”
Toole said she specifically looked for off-campus housing and cat-friendly apartment mates so she could bring her cats to school with her.
Psychology professor Margaret Clark said research has shown that pets do indeed serve a positive psychological function.
“I am aware that there is quite a bit of research suggesting that, in fact, having pets is good for you,” she wrote in the e-mail. “My own understanding is that pets really do serve to calm people down or keep them calm.”
‘Worth the risk’
Some Yale students — who all asked to remain anonymous because of University policy banning pets from the dorms — have taken the need for “an anchor” a step further, bringing pets into their residential colleges.
“It’s worth the risk,” said one freshman girl, who owns an African pygmy hedgehog (named Nevsky after the Russian Saint Alexander Nevsky). While the African pygmy hedgehog is illegal in certain American states — albeit not Connecticut — she said the animal was very popular in Russia.
A shy, prickly little creature, Nevsky mostly naps in a cage above the freshman’s bed in her single room. She received the pet as an 18th birthday present before college, she said.
“I wanted myself to have this responsibility,” she said. “I can fall apart sometimes, but if I have this thing that is dependent on me for care, it can be like an anchor.”
But the freshman admitted that hedgehogs are not social characters and they sleep for most of the day, doing “their own thing.”
“He’s not a pastime,” she said. “I think of him as a roommate.” And given that the typical lifetime of an average hedgehog is four to five years, she may just have a permanent roommate for the entirety of her undergraduate years at Yale.
The “Yale College Undergraduate Regulations 2007-2008,” though, places Pets fourth in a list of prohibited dormitory possessions and behaviors — after Noise, Firecrackers and Fireworks, and Firearms and Weapons, in that order.
The manual states that pets are not permitted in dormitory rooms and “the custodial supervisor has the authority to remove and to send to the pound any animal found in the dormitories.” In fact, Davenport College Master Richard Schottenfeld ’71 MED ’76 said animals have been removed from dorms two or three times in the past seven years.
The inspections occur at regular times, Schottenfeld said, but the no-pets rule is basically a “blanket rule.”
“I absolutely love the idea of fellows having dogs and cats,” Schottenfeld added as he watched Wally, Resident Fellow Erin Lavik’s Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever, run around the Davenport courtyard. Even though Schottenfeld is allergic to dogs, he said it is important for people to have “pet lives” — that is, one-on-one time with dogs. “I do like having somebody in the college own a dog,” he said.
Still, Schottenfeld emphasized there are no exceptions to the pet in dormitories rule. “Resident fellows don’t have undergraduate regulations,” he said.
Lavik, who has lived in Davenport with Wally for three years, said her dog loves being on a college campus. “This is pretty much what dog heaven looks like,” she said.
Making Yale ‘more permanent’
But even the grandest of courtyards may not be heavenly to a pet kept in secret.
JD, for example, a cat owned by four sophomore girls paces through limited territory: two bedrooms, a bathroom and a common room. She looks out the window into a courtyard she cannot enter, and an outdoors she only experiences during school holidays.
But cats are happy in dorm rooms, insists one of her owners since, in general, they are nocturnal and kept indoors. They also adapt well to the schedules of four, busy girls.
“They’re self-sufficient but also affectionate,” she said.
JD became part of their suite last September, when the girls bought a kitten together at a Dixwell Avenue animal shelter in the name of “suite bonding.”
“She makes our suite homier,” she said. “It seems more permanent because we have something to take care of.”
Between jumping from tabletop to the door frame, the cat makes her rounds visiting each of the suitemates, softly purring for attention.
“She likes cuddling and napping with all of us,” another suite member said. “If she sees you fall asleep, she’ll come and sleep next to you.”
Sharing Facebook photos of JD as a young kitten, both suite members excitedly agreed, “getting JD was one of the best decisions we’ve made.”
April, too, has three albums of her squirrels on her Facebook profile, titled “The joy of my life,” “It Happened” and “More Fluff.” In these photos, she captures moments of the squirrels playing in her bed, sitting on her shoulder and happily munching on hazelnuts and almonds.
As an international student from St. Petersburg, Russia, she said she has no family in the United States. The squirrels, she said, help her to feel more at home at Yale by providing a sense of comfort.
“In this country, this is my home,” she said, “and the squirrels are like pets to me.”