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Eckerd College bestows a blessed perk: Pets allowed in dorms

ST. PETERSBURG — Apollo, the green-winged macaw, may be the only bird in the city to have attended both a college psychology class and a priestly blessing.

The blessing happened Wednesday at the Eckerd College campus, where the colorful pet lives with his owner, Margaret Lombard, a junior majoring in philosophy.

Apollo, 2, did not seem to mind the loud antics of several dogs, also campus residents, as Father Oscar Kozyra of the Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg uttered the blessing and made the sign of the cross on his red-feathered head.

Moments earlier, the Rev. Mona Bagasao, university chaplain, prompted the faithful at the college's fifth annual blessing of the animals.

"I know we're not a highly liturgical group here, but this is how it works," she told the students, staffers, dogs, a Norway rat, various snakes and lizards gathered in the sunny quad. "I read the part that says, 'We' and y'all read the part that says, 'Many.' ''

"Was that a bark or an amen?" she added.

This was just a day in the life at Eckerd, a private liberal arts college with roots in the Presbyterian Church that prides itself in having a progressive, eco-friendly campus. There is a free bicycle exchange program, and on a recent day the school "challenged" its food vendor to feed 1,000 students a meal made with ingredients grown within 150 miles.

"It's symbolic of the type of community we are," said Dean James J. Annarelli, who helped develop the pet policy, which the school says is among extremely few in the country. This is a dean who, on a flier for the animal blessing, was referred to as a "saint" along with St. Francis of Assisi, his head shot is shown with a vestment robe and glowing halo.

The program is definitely unusual. Compare it to the pet policy at the University of Florida. According to the school's Web site, students in dorms are allowed to have fish, guinea pigs, hamsters, gerbils, rabbits, lizards, geckos, chinchillas and birds weighing up to half a pound, but no cats or dogs.

At Eckerd, pets (one allowed) are defined as cats, dogs under 40 pounds, rabbits, ducks and ferrets. Domestic animals (two allowed) are reptiles, birds, snakes up to 6 feet, fish, hamsters and rats. Pit bulls, Rottweilers, wolf breeds and strays are forbidden. Leashing and registration are required.

Animals and their human knowledge seekers live in designated dorms, where cages are mandatory, and the animals are barred from classrooms or eating areas (though Apollo the macaw was once given the pass, Lombard said).

About 50 animals share the campus with its 1,800 students, and for the most part they all get along in biblical-like harmony, said Mike Robilotto, director of resident life. Many staffers bring their pets to work; Robilotto brings his black pugle, Toby. Once, the Pet Council, a group of students and staffers who regulate animal life on campus, denied admission to a 12-foot boa constrictor after some students complained about their safety.

Lombard said living with her macaw on campus allows her to socialize the animal while creating bonds with other students. For instance, she once met part of the wrestling team after Apollo got stuck in a tree and wrestlers muscled down a branch to free him.

"Animals are born and die on this campus," said Bagasao, the chaplain. She then cupped her hands over Annarelli's ears, adding: "Don't tell the dean, but a few are buried on this campus."

"Please don't print that," Annarelli joked.

Luis Perez can be reached at lperez@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2271.

Eckerd College bestows a blessed perk: Pets allowed in dorms 10/04/08 [Last modified: Saturday, October 4, 2008 4:33am]
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