A Wakefield nurse who was refused entry to an event with her pet skunk Pongo is calling on businesses to support customers with mental health problems.
Paula Bavill has struggled with anxiety for more than a decade, but says Pongo, allows her to cope with large crowds.
Paula, 46, said: “He keeps me calm, because if I’m in an enclosed space if I am there I would be able to hear every conversation, it’s completely overwhelming.
“There’s something about having Pongo physically in front of me. He sits in a pouch and it keeps my focus back on me and what’s happening on me, rather than hearing all the conversations and what’s happening across the room.
“I really struggle with talking to people about me, but when people see Pongo they just want to talk about him.”
Earlier this month, Pongo and Paula were denied entry to a Horror Convention after the venue raised concerns about the safety of having a skunk on site.
Paula contacted the venue, Magna Science Adventure Centre, in advance, but was told she would be unable to bring Pongo to the event.
Paula says she understands the venue’s concerns, but felt she had been “fobbed off” by staff.
She wants venues across the UK to prepare for surprising requests by having plans in place for situations such as hers.
“I’ve lived with this for over 10 years,” she said. “I’ve found what helps. For me it’s a skunk, for some people it might be having a few drinks before, or carrying a teddy bear.
“I get it’s a curveball, it as just about saying that you’re going to get these curveballs. People have a diverse range of mental health conditions.”
“If you’ve not had these problems I don’t expect you to understand it, but I want a little bit of respect when I’m trying to explain it.
“They were absolutely within their rights to say no, but there was no attempt to find an alternative.
“If it was somebody with a physical health problem we would expect them to make a compromise and I think they need to give that same awareness to the mental health side.”
Emotional Support Animals, also known as mental wellness companions, help comfort their owners, and minimise the symptoms of their medical or mental health condition.
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Pongo, 2, is a domesticated striped skunk, who has been socialised by humans since he was just three weeks old, and is even litter trained.
Paula says this makes him safe around people, even strangers.
“People have just got it wrong. Pongo’s so people friendly, everyone falls in love with him.
“I think skunks get a really bad reputation, especially in the media. They don’t spray because they don’t like the small, it takes them quite a lot of time, it’s an absolute last resort.
“He’d growl and stomp and do a huge display to let you know he’s not happy before he sprayed.”
Magna have been contacted for comment on the story.