Chameleons, guinea pigs and ferrets, oh my! What it’s like to be a pet parent at NYU

Pets bring comfort and companionship — helping NYU students reduce the stress of managing a college workload and living in New York City.

Jennifer Ren, Video Director

Ren: Living in a fast-paced city like New York can get a bit lonely and stressful sometimes. If you have wondered whether you should share your college experience with a furry friend, you are not alone. Brelynn Mellen is a drama senior at NYU Tisch. In junior year of college, Peepee and Mellen’s mom drove from Texas to New York, helping her move into her apartment. 

Mellen: Peepee was hanging out, and I was like, ‘She kind of loves it here, and she should stay,’ and so we kept her. 

Ren: Peepee’s presence soon brought up the apartment’s morale. 

Mellen: When I’m sad, she knows, and so she’ll come, and she’ll just let me pet her. We’ve been through so much together. She’s known me the longest in the city out of anyone.

Ren: Like Peepee, 10-month-old HaChew has been rooting for his human friend Catherine Cheng since she brought him home last May. Cheng is a senior double majoring in performance studies and economics, with another minor in dance. The intense workload used to stress her out.

Cheng: Before the exams, I have to study a lot at night. Before I got him, I was really stressed out, and I felt so lonely, and just helpless. 

Ren: According to Penn State’s Center for Collegiate Mental Health, although academic distress declined slightly in 2022, it continues to be much higher than prior to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Cheng: After I got him, he always stays awake when I’m studying. He is always lying on your leg. Whatever you’re doing, he’s always there. 

Ren: Dr. Patricia Pendry is the current president of the International Society for Anthrozoology, which supports the study of human-animal interactions. Also a professor of human development at Washington State University, Dr. Pendry says physical human-animal interaction can have a powerful effect on college students’ emotional well-being.

Pendry: It’s kind of a result, too, of the fact that petting might increase oxytocin, which reduces certain kinds of stress hormones that are produced in response to stressors and can, you know, sort of down-regulate our physiological arousal.

Ren: Meichen Fan is a senior majoring in philosophy and double minoring in cinema studies and economics. She has been guinea pig-sitting when her roommate is busy.

Fan: (Mandarin) 棕色那只叫狗狗,浅一点颜色那只就是脸上黑不拉叽那只叫冰淇淋。 其实这个椅子是安妮给我买的,他让我坐在这看住,是因为我有时候确实包括想事或者有一点难过了,我会挺想跟他们玩一玩或者摸摸他们或者看看他们我也很开心。

(Translation: The brown one is Puppy, the light-colored one. The one with black marks on her face is Ice Cream. This chair was actually bought by Anni for me to sit and see the guinea pigs, because sometimes, when I’m wondering, or when I’m a little down, I would really want to play with them, or pet them, or just watch them — that would make me really happy.) 

Ren: Besides pet-sitting, international students consider adopting pets with shorter lifespans, who need to be rehomed. Ferrets Aka and Maodou are living with an interactive telecommunications grad student. Since ferrets are illegal to keep as pets in New York, this student wishes to be anonymous.

Anonymous Grad: Both of them are rescues from individual owners. I found the owners on Craigslist. Both of them are looking for a new home for them because they couldn’t take care of them anymore. I think it’s pretty therapeutic to play with them all the time, especially after a long day of work. I just really needed some time off for my brain. Even though they’re illegal, part of the reason I want to keep ferrets is also out of logistics based on international student status. Their normal length of life is so much shorter than regular pets. And as an international student, I am facing a lot of challenges staying in New York or staying in the U.S. in general. So that challenge is a limitation when it comes to pets.

Ren: Other international students are glad that they can finally own pets that are unavailable to them in their home country. Jiahua Liao is a junior double majoring in math and computer science, who is raising his girlfriend’s puppy, Dolly, and a chameleon named Xiao Se. Growing up in China, where chameleon pets are banned, Liao was amazed when he met Xiao Se at an exotic pet store in New Jersey.

Jiahua Liao: They met a few times already. Every time I take my chameleon out, they just stare at each other and, you know, chameleons, they can hide themselves really well, so sometimes she can’t even see him. 

Ren: Although chameleons are more independent than dogs in terms of companionship needs, Liao has to pay more attention to keeping a healthy habitat and feeding it live insects. Jiahua Liao: Since they live in rainforests, they have to have a high humidity level. They don’t drink from still water. They have to drink from water droplets. Normally I feed him crickets and dubia roaches. I also get some wax worms, mealworms and hornworms as a treat for him. They’re really slow motion animals. And that’s a really huge contrast with the New York lifestyle, which is really rushy. So, every time when I get home from a whole day of class, when I stare at him, like seeing him moving really slowly to get the prey, I feel like, ‘Oh, yeah — this guy is enjoying his life.’