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Ready Pet Go

Most op-eds tell you what to think. I’m going to tell you what to do.

And that is this: Go to the Science Center Plaza on Thursday between noon and 2 p.m. Follow the squeals, either human or piglet. And discover Harvard’s latest common spaces initiative.

For those of you who have not yet received at least one all-caps text from a roommate about this, an explanation: The Common Spaces program has instituted a weekly petting zoo, filled with aww types of animals: chicks, ducklings, bunnies, and the rest of the cast of your typical Easter greeting card. Professors stop to nuzzle lambs. Toddlers touch goats and then look terrified. And students, of course, are snapchatting kitten pictures like it’s going to get them a McKinsey interview.

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The business that facilitates this madness, the aptly named Animal Craze, is not shy about why Common Spaces has hired it. Signs on most of the cages advertise it as a “pet therapy zoo.” And I have to admit that, at first, I found the whole thing laughable. Amid repeated student efforts to emphasize the need for better mental health services—and administration attempts to improve them—Harvard had decided to add a somewhat unorthodox measure to relieve student stress. For this reason I was skeptical—I didn’t want to see any “pet therapy zoos” until improvements are made to mental health services at Harvard.

But then I went. And, while it might have been just been a brief part of my day, it was a nice one. Because, although efforts like the petting zoo may be small, they do make a difference.

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Although a few moments of bunny lovin’ aren’t going to eradicate a decade-long battle with perfectionism—or depression, or any of the other myriad struggles that we face within our community—it can still help in the moment. Studies on animal-assisted therapy have shown positive effects for patients dealing with schizophrenia and sexual assault. Shorter-term programs, in which therapy dogs visit hospitals or nursing homes, also exist around the country. And, at the petting zoo, the excitement is evident—the mood sure feels quite a bit different than Lamont on a Sunday night.

Little things like the petting zoo may not solve problems, but they can provide a moment’s peace. It was the same way with the daffodils that magically appeared in the Science Center plaza last spring. Intended as a bright spot in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings, they worked for the moment—the campus was brighter, both in mood and in aesthetics. The same goes for the weekly farmers’ and art markets that bring community members and creativity into the sometimes suffocating Harvard bubble. These things might seem small, or frivolous, or just silly, but they serve as a strong reminder that little tweaks in day-to-day life can make a short-term difference.

I understand, of course, that some animals or flowers (or an ice cream truck or gigantic chessboard) won’t fully alleviate the larger concerns about mental health that prompted a student rally last winter. But I understand also that it takes time to wade through budget reevaluations, professional development, and all the other red tape that makes change within a multi-thousand-member community difficult. As the increase in panels and student outreach last year showed, MHS is trying to make well-informed changes, even if they are not moving as quickly or efficiently toward improvement as we might like.

So, in the meantime, grab yourself a duckling. It can’t hurt.

Leah J. Schulson ’14, a Crimson editorial writer, is a history concentrator in Eliot House.

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