Wakefield nurse refused entry to event with pet skunk calls on businesses to support mental health

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.

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.

Pongo the skunk.

Pongo the skunk.

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.”

Paula Bavill and her support skunk Pongo. Picture Scott Merrylees

Paula Bavill and her support skunk Pongo. Picture Scott Merrylees

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.

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.”

Kevin Tomlinson, chief executive of Magna Science Adventure Centre, said: "Magna was contacted regarding bringing a pet skunk to an event as an emotional support animal for a customer with social anxiety. Magna allows service animals into our Events Centre and Science attraction but this is the first time we have been approached regarding bringing a pet as an emotional support animal.

"Our management team met and undertook a full review of the request and concluded that the animal in question was unsuitable in premises that prepare and serve food.

"This was not discriminatory, it was a food hygiene and health and safety matter.

"Registered service animals are trained to perform a function, or do a job, that his or her owner can’t perform on their own due to a physical, intellectual, or emotional disability.

"These animals may, of course, provide emotional support and comfort, but they are specifically trained.

"Emotional support animals are not required to receive training as part of their designation, which means: not every emotional support animal can be counted on to behave well in public.

"Magna contacted the customer to explain that our management team had looked into their complaint further and informed her that her ESA would unfortunately not be allowed entrance to Magna’s premises and we were sorry if this meant she now felt unable to attend the event."