ST. PETERSBURG — If it has legs, Eckerd College students will put a leash on it. From small dogs bounding alongside their long-boarding owners to leashed ferrets wiggling along walking paths, animals aren't confined to the four walls of a dorm room. Snakes hug their owners' necks on the way to class, and students redefine the term "outdoor cat" by doing homework at picnic tables with their tethered felines. This diversity and environment helped Eckerd rank No. 4 on Petside.com's 2012 list of most pet-friendly colleges nationally. That's after a three-year run as No. 1.
"It is absolutely amazing," said Tonya Womack, staff adviser for the Eckerd College Pet Council and assistant director of campus safety. Womack takes a hands-off approach to the council, allowing it to be almost completely student run.
"I joined (the Pet Council) my freshman year," said Hannah Feigin, now the director. "I liked the fact that it was a pet-friendly school and wanted to get involved in making that happen."
About 60 registered pets live on campus. Pets — limited to one per student — include dogs under 40 pounds, cats, ferrets, rabbits, ducks and large birds. Tank and aquarium animals do not need to be registered.
Though they're subject to more guidelines now, furry friends aren't new to campus. Eckerd's partnership with pets dates back to 1972. Pets are restricted to five dorms, all of which have been specifically prepared for animals by removing all carpet and being cleaned intensely for potential allergens.
Senior Rosie Kerber moved her dog, Felix, to the college the second semester of her freshman year.
"He's a constant source of entertainment," Kerber said. "It sort of relieves stress sometimes."
For junior Rachel Ellingson, having an animal was more than just bringing a part of the family to school. Ellingson was diagnosed with depression eight years ago, and her cat at home helped her cope.
"Taking care of her made me feel like I had a sense of purpose," Ellingson said, "and the unconditional love that I got from her was also really helpful in coping and helping to kind of treat my depression."
Since that cat was too old to make the trip from Minnesota, Ellingson adopted a furry orange kitten that she named Oliver. Through the counseling center at Eckerd, Oliver was registered as a therapy cat and lives with Ellingson. He is one of several therapy animals on campus.
While Oliver stays mostly indoors, senior Saige Liparulo's lovebird, Luna, travels all over campus.
"I used to bring her to the pool with me when I'd lifeguard," Liparulo said. She adopted the bird her sophomore year. "She'd stay in her cage and people would come by and look at her."
It's these kinds of integrated pet experiences that the Pet Council hopes to promote. The activities committee shepherds events throughout the year, including a blessing of the pets on the first Wednesday of October. The date coincides with the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi, patron saint of animals.
"We invite pets and their people to come out and receive a short blessing from the chaplains and a medallion," the Rev. Libby Shannon, assistant chaplain, said. "Mostly it's an opportunity to honor the critters in people's lives as an important part of their lives and to acknowledge that our pets are our family, too."
Though Eckerd ranks high on the pet-friendly list — the other Florida college ranked is Stetson University, in DeLand, at No. 2 — it isn't resting on any laurels. For instance, exercising dogs on campus is a challenge. Eckerd doesn't have a fenced area for dogs to exercise, so they must remain on a leash at all times.
It isn't as simple as planting a fence in a grassy area. All construction operates within the college's master plan, and the process to include a new structure is involved. The completed project is estimated to take up to five years.
"Time and again Eckerd has shown that we value the things that are important to our students," Shannon said. "There's not a divide between what students find important and what the college finds important, and (pets) are a part of that."