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Heavy Petting brings stress relief, and a farm, to campus

CCB event featuring dogs, rabbits and pot-bellied piglet continues to soothe student anxieties

Students and alums gathered around three wire cages on the Main Green Sunday afternoon to enjoy yet another installment of the Class Coordinating Board-sponsored event, “Super Duper Heavy Petting.”

This event, begun by the 2015 CCB in spring 2013, has quickly become tradition, according to Class of 2015 Co-President Samuel Kase ’15, who is also a Herald photographer. The event developed from Health Services’ original Heavy Petting, during which faculty brought their dogs to the Main Green for students who miss their own furry companions, Kase said.

CCB had long considered bringing in a petting zoo but ran into obstacles of expense and concerns about animal cruelty, he said. Eventually one of Kase’s friends from Boston College directed him to Farm Visits, a program run out of Massachusetts that brings baby farm animals to a variety of events.

Farm Visits has been operational for five years now, said Dawn Cordeiro, the owner of the company, adding that the concept originated from friends’ suggestions. She and her husband opened the business and since then, the initiative has taken off.

“I’ve always had a farm, and my husband and I have raised a lot of farm-type animals,” she said, adding her friends often would request she bring rabbits to their children’s birthday parties.

CCB usually tries to plan Heavy Petting to coincide with times when students are particularly stressed, offering a “manageable break,” said Aaron Rosenthal ’16, a member of CCB.

Leading up to the event, “a lot of people are really hyped,” he said, adding that immediately afterwards, students across campus update their Facebook profile pictures to showcase the baby animals.

But not all students think the benefits of Heavy Petting outweigh the possible animal rights concerns.

“As cute and cuddly as they are, we’re compromising the safety and health of these poor bunnies and chicks just for the sake of our own enjoyment,” said Grace Sun ’16. “I can’t help but worry for the health and well being of these animals. We carry diseases that chicks and bunnies do not have the immune system to fend off, and with the hoards of students caressing and passing around the bunnies, I’m afraid they will catch something.”

“We can’t just handle them and possibly present them with chaos and discomfort and then leave them and expect them to be okay,” said Ria Vaidya ’16. “These baby animals are not objects that are supposed to induce happiness in us.”

But this weekend’s edition was not advertised as a stress break — instead, it was part of the festivities on the Main Green in honor of Brown’s 250th anniversary.

For this edition of “Super Duper Heavy Petting,” Cordeiro brought several baby rabbits, chicks, ducklings, a kid goat and a pot-bellied piglet to campus.

Shanav Mehta ’18, Vidita Nevatia ’18 and Sohum Chokshi ’18 were sitting with a baby rabbit under the shade of a tree on the Main Green during the event.

“I am super happy,” Chokshi said. “I haven’t stopped smiling this whole entire time since I got here.”

“We have an emotional connection now,” Mehta said, referring to the baby rabbit he was holding, which was wrapped in a blanket.

Recent alums Beth Mottel ’14 and Audrey Davis ’14 had come back to campus for the 250th celebration and were attending Super Duper Heavy Petting for the first time.

“I feel like I always had something when Heavy Petting was going on, or I had too much work,” Mottel said. She could see how the event would be an effective stress reliever for students  — “if you could get them there.” Davis agreed, saying that the event should always be held in an area where students could just pass by, like the Main Green.

“Before finals, I bet this kind of thing would help a lot,” Chokshi said.

“Stress is a somewhat complex thing,” said Kevin Bath, assistant professor of cognitive, linguistic and psychological sciences, whose research focuses on the effects of early-life stress. A small amount of stress can be helpful and invigorating to the system, he said, while too much stress or chronic stress can cause shrinkage of different brain areas and lead to memory problems.

“Students always talk about (Super Duper Heavy Petting) in a positive way,” said Sherri Nelson, director of Counseling and Psychological Services. She described the event as a “good stress reliever” and possibly beneficial for students who might be missing a pet from home.

Davis said the main draw for her were the rabbits. “I used to have a rabbit, so just now I saw the bunnies and I thought, ‘Oh my God, I need to touch them right now,’” she said.

Interactions with pets have been shown to have physical and mental benefits, said Lisa Frappier, a psychiatrist at CAPS. They offer a “non-judgmental connection” and can stimulate the release of oxytocin, a pair-bonding hormone that is also released when hugging. Dopamine and serotonin levels may also rise with these interactions, she added, noting that both chemicals act as antidepressants.

Animals have been employed for soothing purposes in other health programs. Frappier cited research suggesting that watching a fish tank can lower an individual’s blood pressure, while Nelson discussed a program in which schools use dogs to help children with difficulty reading. Dogs induce less anxiety as listeners, lowering the pressure on children learning to read.

Bath also cited research from McGill University exploring the significance of early tactile contact in young animals with their mothers. Socialization and companionship can tend to decrease stress, and in the case of Heavy Petting it is also the animals that are receiving the direct contact, making it mutually beneficial for the students and the animals, he said.

Cordeiro said she could often see the stress melt away from the students after they spent time with the animals. “Everybody always says, ‘Now I can take my test, I feel great!’” she said.

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