UF kicks rabbits, guinea pigs out of student housing
Published: Wednesday, August 14, 2013 at 6:47 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, August 14, 2013 at 6:47 p.m.
Graduate student Suwan Shen said she found out this week that Thursday is doomsday for rabbits living in University of Florida student housing.
When she checked her mail on Monday, she found a letter dated Aug. 7 saying the university had decided to prohibit rabbits and she had until Aug. 15 to get rid of her pet, Baby.
"This is really a surprise for me," said Shen, a Chinese student who is a year away from getting her Ph.D. in urban planning. Her long-range plan was to take Baby with her when she graduated, but now she's at a loss. "It's very difficult, because I don't have any preparation."
UF Housing officials sent notices to 32 students who had guinea pigs, birds or dwarf rabbits as pets in the past four semesters that their pets would no longer be allowed after Thursday, said Sharon Blansett, assistant to the associate vice president for student affairs.
"This policy change was not made without thinking of the impact it may have on staff, residents and pets," Blansett said. "Most UF campus residents are responsible pet owners; however, staff and student leaders were noticing increasing instances of abandoned, neglected or mistreated guinea pigs, birds and dwarf rabbits in recent years."
UF has a liberal pet policy, Blansett said. Students are allowed to keep fish, hamsters, gerbils, lizards (except for iguanas) that are no more than six inches from snout to tail. Frogs, geckos, salamanders, chinchillas and non-predatory birds no bigger than one half-pound are also allowed.
As of summer 2012, UF had 112 residents with registered pets out of 7,600 dormitory residents and another 1,700 in graduate and family housing, she said. That's about 1.2 percent of the resident population.
But staff and students had complained about guinea pigs — which were removed last year — birds and rabbits, said JoCynda Hudson, assistant director of housing for conduct and community standards. She first brought up the issue with the Inter-Residence Hall Association, the undergraduate housing student body, in October.
Roommates and staff had complained that cages were not being kept clean, they were causing an odor and waste wasn't being disposed of properly. Also, some of the so-called "dwarf" rabbits were actually full-sized and being kept in very tight spaces, she said.
Finally, she said, some students had been abandoning their pets during semester breaks, which stressed out both the animals and the housing facilities.
Hudson asked for input from staff and student leaders in November, and in the spring they consulted with the director of housing for residence life and education and the associate vice president for student affairs. Final approval for the change was received in late July, Hudson said, and she sent the notices out Aug. 5 by email and regular mail.
"The goal of the letter was to provide notification to undergrad residents to NOT bring these pets to campus this fall and to allow continuing residents in graduate and family housing adequate time to find another home for these pets," Hudson said.
Anyone keeping pets in the dorms beyond Thursday will be in violation, she said.
"We are not able to extend or 'grandfather in' any animals that are not included in the current community standards," Hudson said.
Kathy Finelli, director of Gainesville Rabbit Rescue, said she has no problem with UF deciding to change its policy, and her organization had used students in the past to foster rabbits in the dorms until they could be adopted out.
But the short notice is not fair to the students who have had those pets for a year or more, Finelli said. "They gave these kids approximately seven or eight days' notice. That is not a lot of time to find an animal a new home."
Shen said she understands that UF has the right to change policy.
"I can understand from the property owner's perspective they can make whatever changes they want, but personally, I think it's good for students to have small pets. They are not much impact, and are easy to take care of."
Shen, the grad student, said Baby has helped her during her three years here, far from her home 8,000 miles away in eastern China, where she said it is common for middle school and university students to keep rabbits as pets.
"She helps me a lot when I study, especially when I have tension and am feeling lonely away from my home," Shen said.
Now Shen has the added stress of trying to find a home for her rabbit so it isn't killed. She called Gainesville Rabbit Rescue, which can't accept any more rabbits at this time because it already has its maximum number. Shen said she's afraid an animal shelter would destroy her pet, and setting it free in the wild would certainly condemn the critter to a crueler fate.
"I will just try my best to get a place for my rabbit, but I just hope UF can give us more time to find a place for the animal," Shen said. "I believe they will. I don't believe they are so heartless."