Georgia State students bunk with a wide range of animals

Between classes, work and parties, many Georgia State students still find time to take care of a furry friend or maybe not-so-furry.

Fur, spikes and scales are all characteristics of today’s pets. More Americans than ever are opting to raise a pet, and according to the Insurance Information Institute, roughly 67% of American households have pets.

Georgia State sophomore Leilani Leon has a Jack Russell Terrier mix service dog named Winn-Dixie. Leon’s family adopted him about 10 years ago, and he now holds an irreplaceable spot in Leon’s life. 

A dog that began as a regular family pet later became Leon’s companion in life and health. In high school, Leon began fainting with little warning. 

As college life neared, she began to experience more stress-induced migraines and loss of consciousness. During this time, Leon noticed Winn-Dixie incessantly nudging her and following her every move. That’s when Leon realized the depth of their bond. 

“Winn-Dixie started picking up on things … [I realized] maybe he knows something that’s going on with my body,” Leon said. “Once he was staying with me all the time, he would nudge me like, ‘Hey, hey, you’re going to pass out,’ and I’m like, ‘Okay, I know what to do.’”

Since then, Leon helped train Winn-Dixie as an official service dog. For him, this includes staying calm in stressful situations and placing himself underneath Leon’s feet in case she faints.

Not all pets have the same practicality as Winn-Dixie, and Georgia State students have reported owning a wide variety of pets, including bearded dragons, ferrets and horses. 

Georgia State senior Maya Watley owns an axolotl named Mushu. An axolotl is a water-dwelling amphibian that resembles a transparent, smiling salamander walking underwater. The axolotl is endemic to Lake Xochimilco near Mexico City.

She enjoys time spent with Mushu but admits that some aspects of pet ownership are tedious. 

The responsibilities include keeping the tank water above 69 degrees, using a quality filter and not exposing them to any overhead light, due to the axolotl’s lack of eyelids.

Watley adds that axolotls are critically endangered but thrive in captivity. This persuaded Watley to give Mushu a new home. 

Watley isn’t the only student housing a scaly friend. Student Breanna Bertrand owns Freddy, a six-month-old bearded dragon. 

Owning a baby bearded dragon comes with additional responsibility, and Bertrand added that whenever she takes Freddy out with her, she gives herself a curfew.

“[He] feels like a newborn child. Like, I’ll be at a party and say, ‘Hey guys, I’ve gotta get going soon, I have to put him to bed,’” Bertrand said with a laugh. “It happens every single time I go out. I can’t stay out too late because, Freddy needs his UV light [because] he can’t get too cold.”

Despite the duties of pet ownership, these students agree that their efforts are a fair trade for companionship. 

“It’s almost therapeutic taking care of something like that,” Bertrand said. “It’s just always nice having that constant presence. Even though Freddy doesn’t do a lot but bask in the light all day, he really does have a personality of his own.” 

Watley agreed and said that her pets have helped her mature.

“It helps me be more responsible, just by taking care of something else,” Watley said. “I have something other than myself to regulate and make sure I’m taking care of it properly.”

Leon said she has had to make sacrifices to train Winn-Dixie, but now she is thankful for their impenetrable bond. 

“I know he’s always there for me, and I can rely on him,” Leon said. “He is my number No.1 de-stresser, he is my lifeline.”