College Cats and Dorm Dogs

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Kai Ridenoure/Senior Staff

Senior Meg Dowley is sitting near two dogs on Memorial Glade, watching Snaps, a large, spotted terrier mutt out of the corner of her eye. Snaps wrestles another dog a third his size. The smaller dog has his eyes open in alarm, a deer-in-headlights look plastered on his face, but he is putting up a good fight.

Dowley, who grew up raising family pets and riding horses competitively, missed being around animals when she came to college. Unable to afford her own pet, she volunteered to care for the dogs of several of her friends who had bit off more than they could chew. Besides Snaps, she also watches over a Jack Russell Terrier and a German Shepherd. They hike through the fire trails and cuddle while Dowley does her homework. In total, she spends up to 20 hours a week caring for the three dogs.

“It’s a great form of birth control,” Dowley half jokes. “I don’t want a kid anytime soon.”

Halfway between cared for and caretaker, many college students are, like Dowley, taking on additional responsibilities for the first time — whether it be dedicating free time to other living beings or merely paying rent.

Together, the two dogs run off to sniff couples intertwined near the trees. They jump in front of a crew carrying speakers, trying to set up a booth for an upcoming performance. Someone — or something — is definitely going to get hurt. Dowley, however, is completely unfazed. She is effortlessly aware of the dogs’ movements, in tune with when they are acting innocuously versus when they are sniffing for trouble.

“Dogs are so easy to read,” Dowley says. “It’s like if you have a friend without a filter — they tell you everything.”

Junior transfer Lisa Yang, the owner of Mondo, the smaller dog, first thought she would take him in only temporarily. But after a week of bonding, she “couldn’t let him go.”

“He’s seriously my baby,” Yang says.

Still, like the students Dowley helps out, Yang was surprised by the amount of time Mondo demanded. She had to adjust to the extra responsibility of going home during the day or leaving early from parties to feed him or to stop him from peeing in her apartment.

But the challenge of raising a pet extends beyond packing an additional time commitment into an already crammed schedule. For other students, navigating the process of raising an animal requires trying out new roles of authority.

“Some people would say, ‘It’s just a cat,’ but when they are young especially, you have to take them to the vet, you have to keep up with their flea medication every month, and you have to really be there for them,” says fifth-year Sarah Rominger. “It gives you the perspective of caring for something bigger than yourself.”

Rominger got her cat, Pi, two years ago from a friend. Having grown up on a farm, Rominger felt prepared for the challenge of caring for an animal. But she says the process of raising a kitten was still difficult to navigate as a student.

When Pi got spayed, she required constant supervision until her stitches had healed. Though Rominger’s parents were able to support her by babysitting Pi for the week, she was responsible for the rest of the cat’s training on her own. At first, Pi clawed at furniture, munched on Rominger’s bedspread and tore down posters from her walls. For six months, Rominger filled a spray bottle with water and squirted Pi when she misbehaved. Still, Pi chewed through 20 pages of her Math 151 reader.

“They are cats — they can be destructive,” she said. “I have learned what needs to be stored up high.”

Nguyen Tu Tran, who graduated in the spring of 2013, purposely bought an adult cat in order to bypass this learning curve. Roy — who was already 12 when Tran bought him from a shelter in 2011 — indeed sleeps “60 to 70 percent of the day” and is as low maintenance as Tran had hoped. Nevertheless, Tran was surprised by the potential financial burden entailed in raising a pet, especially an older one. Within a year, Roy had developed a growth on his jaw, and most of his teeth had rotted. Tran shelled out $2,500 to keep Roy healthy.

“It was this moment like, ‘Hello, you now own this thing that you are completely financially responsible for,’ ” Tran says.

Despite these trying moments, or perhaps because of them, the owners universally spoke of how caring for animals has helped them to grow as individuals.

Since adopting Roy, Tran has learned patience and come to appreciate the payback from investing time and energy into raising a living being — skills he thinks will eventually help him be a better parent.

“It’s the same reason I imagine people have house plants,” Tran said. “There’s a slow rewarding system to it — you put a certain amount of time into it, and over time, it pays back.”

Contact Sam Strimling at [email protected]