One journalism hazard is a bias that one’s argument is so obvious, so utterly logical there can be no cogent case against it. There is finally a call for service animal owners being required to show some documentation to legitimize their animals’ status. And this is a good thing.
Using the strictest definition of the words, “service animals” have a legitimate place anywhere. According to the Americans with Disability Act Network, a service animal is any animal that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability. The work or task must be directly related to the individual’s disability. What has become herd behavior of the very worse sort, though, is the proliferation of emotional support animals (ESA).
The salient differences between a service dog and an emotional support animal are both enormous and pertinent. As outlined above, service animals are trained. They are trained specifically to meet the needs of a disabled person. They are housebroken. They obey. They are under control. They are not pets. An emotional support animal has no special training to assist people with disabilities. Their sole talent is their presence.
Through the efforts of some well-intentioned people for the benefit of some well-deserving others, it has become possible and legal for a disabled person to bring their service animal with them at no cost on commercial flights. But because we have become a country of “let me see how much I can cash in on someone else’s misfortune,” a burgeoning army have decided they cannot function without a companion dog. Or horse. Or pig. Or hamster. Or peacock. Airlines are not—-small mercies—-required to recognize other species of ESA such as snakes, reptiles, ferrets, rodents, and spiders. (Really !?! We can only hope it’s not the one I squished in the kitchen this morning.) Unsavory folks who know a loophole when they see it have hitched their leashes (or however you harness a spider) to the ADA and have exploited it shamelessly.
Any traveler can attest to the huge increase in the number of dogs being hauled through airports and onto commercial flights. In the past twenty years I have seen approximately zero service dogs on airplanes. During the past five years, in contrast, the ESA population has multiplied like a puppy mill. This means either we are in the midst of sudden-onset nation-wide emotional meltdowns or are seeing a fabulous scam being visited upon airline travel. Because the vast majority of people don’t know the difference between service dogs and emotional support animals, the unscrupulous are getting away with it. Most airlines limit the number of animals allowed on a flight. What is especially loathsome is the notion a wannabe ESA could prevent a true service animal from being permitted to board.
There is a buck to be made, so it is astonishingly easy to declare any mutt on earth an ESA. Enter “emotional support animal” into a search engine and be entertained by riveting links such as “Take Your Dog Anywhere” and “We Offer the Only Legal ESA Letter.” For $79 anyone can acquire a lifetime ESA registration for their pet (which means absolutely nothing), a nifty-looking certificate (ditto), two ID cards, and an emotional support dog tag. Another $80 will buy that spiffy little vest. One site claims it runs on the “honor system” that people applying for these goodies really need them. Written verbiage less than one year old under the letterhead of a mental health professional is just about all that is needed. Do you have a computer? Do you have a printer? Even if you can’t find someone to churn one out for you, it’s a DIY project to get that “letter.” But to quote the ADA web site: “It does not matter if a person has a note from a doctor that states that the person has a disability and needs to have the animal for emotional support. A doctor’s letter does not turn an animal into a service animal.”
Because the number of ESA has grown large, so have the untoward incidents. There has been a 500% increase in the number of complaints about emotional support animals, including the infamous episode of an emotional support pig defecating during an American flight. Alleged ESA have bitten other dogs, been unruly enough to require a muzzle, and have been spotted sporting diapers. Complaints about seeing eye dogs haven’t gone up at all.
As is sadly too often the case, fixing the problem is going to entail burdening the legitimate because of the fraudulent. Anyone attempting to have their animal with them on a commercial flight should be required to provide factual documentation proving the animal is necessary. Even this doesn’t go far enough. The animal ought to be trained, under control, and fulfill all other criteria of a service animal. An emotional support animal shouldn’t create emotional distress in the rest of us.
Marla Boone resides in Covington and writes for Miami Valley Today. This column shared through the AIM Media Midwest group of newspapers.