Animals on campus provide comfort to students

Animals on campus provide comfort to students
Birds reside in their enclosure in the Froiland Science Complex, where they coexist with students. Photo by AJ Heckenlaible.

The first floor of the Froiland Science Complex is dead silent aside from the chatter of passerby students. As students ascend the spiral staircase to the second floor, however, the chatter is replaced by the faint cheeps and chirps of birds from the aviary.

On the opposite side of campus in the Morrison Commons, students swarm around a 9-year-old Australian shepherd-corgi mix named Gobo, who is happy to meet his new friends.

All across campus, students jump at the opportunity to greet furry or feathered friends that give them a sense of being back at home.

Brenda Rieger, a caretaker in the biology department, has been caring for the many birds of the FSC aviary since she started at Augustana in 2008. When Rieger started, the aviary had seen better days, so she made it her top priority to improve the birds’ environment.

In October 2008, the new aviary was installed, and it still stands proudly today. It looms over the teachers walking to their next class or students studying at tables nearby.

Five different nests sit upon the back wall of the aviary, along with walls of straw and leaves. A vibrant pink bird feeder dangles from the fluorescent lights on the ceiling, and bird seeds lay scattered sporadically on the floor.

Rieger opens the glass door on the left of the aviary and brings in two big bowls, one full of water and one with hard-boiled eggs. The 13 birds come out of their hiding places in the straw nests to see the commotion and make their way down for their bath. This is Rieger’s routine for the day. On other days, she changes their bird seed, picks up feathers and feces, and watches for any abnormal behavior.

In years past, Reiger’s routine included an unusual pair of zebra finches, which she remembers fondly.

“I had a male and a female,” Rieger said. “They would come up to a branch when they saw me coming with the eggs and bath, and they wouldn’t let me set it in there until I stroked each one of them.”

Rieger encountered another unusual situation with the birds in 2022. As she cleaned the aviary, a diamond dove would fly out of its home and rest on a poster right outside the aviary, observing Rieger’s job.

“He and I had this understanding, and he just stayed put,” Rieger said.

The current birds are switched out every three months, so there will always be new breeds for students to observe and for Rieger to take care of.

Although she has taken care of various birds in the past, she has only ever named a trio of shaft-tailed finches. She honored them with the names Larry, Curly and Moe after the popular characters in the comedy show “The Three Stooges.”

“The birds like people, and people like the birds, too,” Rieger said.

This theory is evident in the many numbers of students scattered at nearby tables who also observe Rieger going about her daily routine.

While the birds are entrancing from behind their enclosure, students get to be up close and personal with Gobo, a tiny puppy who wags his stubby tail at his newly found friends in the theatre department during Backstage Practicum — a late-night class filled with around 50 students, all of whom are happy to see Gobo.

Gobo is the star pupil of the theatre department with his short legs and dark gray spotted coat. The ex-therapy dog is happy to say hello to anyone who stumbles upon him as he explores the theater lobby, the main theater stage and the costuming department.

As he wanders the area, he greets his best friend Cindy Bakke, the supervisor of the costume shop who returns his greeting with an animal cracker from a container that sits on top of a table with sewing machines and stray scrap fabric.

Gobo’s owner, professor Jayna Fitzsimmons, co-teaches Backstage Practicum, and she often brings Gobo along with her to class every couple of weeks.

Gobo, whose prior name was Jake, used to be a breeding dog. At the age of three, his owner decided to give him away on Craigslist.

“He lived on a farm, sort of a private breeding operation, and he never has lived in a house,” Fitzsimmons said. “He’d never been in a house. He had never walked on a leash.”

Gobo found a new purpose working at Therapy Dogs International. He spent his next couple of years at Avera and Sanford hospitals as a desk dog, as well as at local libraries, where kids would sit next to him as they read.

“He was such a good therapy dog,” Fitzsimmons said. “He loved it. He loves people, and his temperament is perfect for it.”

When the pandemic hit in 2020, Gobo’s therapy dog visits were suspended, and he was retired shortly thereafter. As the pandemic faded away, Fitzsimmons started taking him to her late-night class, where he would share his therapy dog gifts with students and then go home to take a well-deserved nap.

These animals on campus bring students their own sense of home at Augustana. They provide an overwhelming amount of empathy and loyalty that students need in their life.