Weird (and Dangerous?) Emotional Support Animals
A dog as therapy pet is one thing — a turkey or snake is another
It was a case of fowl play — or was it? Recently, a passenger on a Delta Airlines flight brought on board a live turkey, claiming it was a “therapy pet.”
Yes. In fact, emotional support animals of all shapes and stripes have been spotted in places you might never have imagined. One woman in Wisconsin took her "service kangaroo" into a fast-food restaurant (prompting a call to police). A man in Missouri brought his therapy snake into a Mexican cafe, rattling fellow diners.
Is all this really legal?
It depends on the animal and where you’re bringing it, says Meghan Mills, PhD, an assistant professor of sociology at Birmingham-Southern College in Birmingham, Alabama. Mills, who teaches a course on therapy and service animals, says airlines in particular give people a lot of leeway.
“In 1986, a law called the Air Carrier Access Act was passed, and as soon as you walk through an airport’s front door, you’re covered by it. It basically ensures that individuals with disabilities are able to fly and have the accommodations they need,” says Mills.
In other words, air transit operators can’t discriminate against you if you say you need a feathered or furry companion in order to take your trip. They also can’t protest if you say you’re fine with flying solo but will need your service animal at your destination. (There are exceptions, such as farm animals and snakes on a plane. Check your carrier’s rules.)
On a plane, a pet can be considered a service animal if it’s there solely for emotional support. “You just have to have a medical note stating that you have a condition such as depression or anxiety,” says Mills.
Airlines aren’t more aggressive about drawing a line because “we’re a sue-happy society,” says Mills. “The airlines need to keep their clientele happy, and not invade the privacy of someone with a legitimate disability.” Because of this, Mills notes, “there is a possibility of some people taking advantage of the system” by bringing a potentially skittish or aggressive animal on board.
Could it be dangerous for fellow passengers? “Potentially,” she acknowledges. If you have a problem with a fellow passenger’s animal, “the first step for the airline would probably be to try to separate your seats so you can sit as far away from each other as possible.” It’s up to you to speak up.
What about that kangaroo?
Outside of airports, the rules tend to be stricter. “The Americans with Disability Act defines a service animal as a dog,” says Mills. Still, some states have opted to recognize other animals, such as miniature horses, as service animals, provided the creature has been trained to help a person with a documented disability.
Keeping an animal with you just for emotional support doesn’t always cut it on the ground. Many states sanction only animals that help with physical tasks, such as pulling wheelchairs, steering the sight-impaired and fetching dropped items.
The problem, Mills warns, is “some people have found ways around the system. Some companies sell vest that says ‘Service Dog’ on it for you to put on your dog, even though he’s had no special training, and then you can take your pet almost anywhere,” she says.
And people may get away with it. The Americans with Disabilities Act forbids shopkeepers, restaurant owners and other public-area gatekeepers from being too nosy. “They aren’t allowed to demand documentation for the animal’s training or the patron’s disability,” says Mills. “They’re only allowed to ask whether the animal is a service animal required for a disability, and what kinds of tasks the service animal has been trained to perform.” They can, however, demand that any animal who gets out of hand or defecates be taken off the premises.
Which leaves the rest of us to make the best of it, at least in some cases. Don't like being seated next to a horse (even a petite one)? Ask for another table.