Hopping for mental health

(Photo: Daniel Wesser)

(Nick Hatt, dean of students. Photo: Daniel Wesser)

If you spent any time at all walking across the King’s quad this fall, chances are you spotted something initially odd: a seated student surrounded by a folding metal cage. If you took a closer look, however, you would have met one of King’s most recent furry four-legged creatures: Nancy the psychiatric service bunny.

Nancy is three years old, and belongs to first year FYP student Adaline Caitlin. Caitlin, who hails from Boston, suffers from crippling anxiety. Back home she has a therapy dog, but when she knew she would be moving into residence in order to attend King’s, she knew she would need a therapy animal that was slightly more portable.

Enter Nancy, who was prescribed as a therapy animal for Caitlin. Nancy was the victim of rabbit dumping, the name given to the practice of abandoning rabbits outdoors. She was picked up by the House Rabbit Network of New England, and soon found her way into Caitlin’s heart and home.

Nancy underwent multiple personality tests before earning her psychiatric service certification. She has a service vest, but she doesn’t wear it very often.

“Rabbits hate having things around their necks”, Caitlin said.

Despite having the ideal temperament for providing companionship and psychological support, Nancy suffers from several hind leg issues due to genetic anomalies. Caitlin has had three major knee surgeries, so she feels she can relate to her bunny in a special way.

“Her biggest impact on be has been a significant lowering in my day to day anxiety. When I am suffering from a panic attack – mine are almost always quite horrid and can get to the point of me being virtually catatonic – Nancy brings me back to a safe reality,” Caitlin said.

Nancy lives in a repurposed dog cage on the floor of Caitlin’s room. Her water bowl is a handmade piece by Caitlin’s sister.

Nancy mostly lives on a diet of alfalfa pellets, Timothy hay and broccoli. According to Caitlin, and contrary to popular belief, carrots and lettuce are horrible for rabbits because they contain too much sugar and not enough nutrients. She blames the Peter Rabbit children’s books for the common misconception.

“Beatrix Potter did not do her research,” she said.

While Nancy is primarily around to help Caitlin with her anxiety, she has also had a positive impact on the happiness and mental of health of other King’s students.

Nancy is a popular feature at study snacks sessions on Sunday nights in the manning room.

Friends and even acquaintances of Caitlin’s have asked her to bring Nancy along to not just study snacks, but also to other more informal study sessions.

“She has provided immense comfort to the student body both in groups and in more intimate settings,” she said.

“One day a female friend reached out via text and told me she was having a challenging mental health day. She asked if I could bring Nancy to her room and if the two of us humans could spend time together with Nancy’s company.”

Nick Hatt, dean of students, agrees that having service animals around campus is beneficial to students, and believes that having a system in place to allow for these animals is essential.

“We’re actually just in the process of coming up with one. We work on an individual basis with the students who identify any kind of medical need,” he said.  

While Nancy is far from the first therapy animal to live on campus, she is unique in that she’s a rabbit. In the past, for the most part, the only animals that have lived on campus have been cats.  

“We want to support our students in any way that we can,” said Hatt. “I think other students appreciate the animals as well. Look at how popular Casey is!”

Students that require special supports or accommodations are asked to state so in their applications for living in residence. While this will not affect a student’s placement in residence, it will allow for residence staff to properly prepare for students with needs, and to be able to point them in the right direction.

Students requiring other forms of support while at King’s are encouraged to make an appointment with Dal Health.

Free and confidential counseling services and peer support are also available on the first floor of the Academics and Administration building most days of the week, with hours posted on the door.