Emotional Support Animals- Fact or Fraud?

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Despite not growing up with any due to my father’s allergies, I love animals; I have a wonderful bunny named Snickers whom I love dearly.

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I adopted Snickers from the Guelph Humane Society when I was struggling from depression. I had not planned on getting any type of animal, but when I was visiting the Humane Society with my “little sister” I fell in love. I had no specific intentions when I adopted Snickers, he was not planned, but he ended up providing me with an amazing service. I have no doubt in my mind that I would not have gotten through my depression as fast without my furry companion. He was a distraction, a source of laughter, and a responsibility. There were days when I didn’t want to get out of bed, but I did because Snickers needed to be fed, or needed his cage cleaned. If you had asked me before I got him about the benefits of animal companions I probably wouldn’t have believed that they could be so helpful. But, according to Patricia Marx of the New Yorker, I’ve been doing it all wrong.

Apparently there are thousands of people in the United States “registering” their pet as an E.S.A. (emotional support animal) and using that classification to bring them into establishments where animals aren’t (and shouldn’t be) allowed. Most businesses think that E.S.A.s are equivalent to service animals and are allowing them access.

Contrary to what many business managers think, having an emotional-support card merely means that one’s pet is registered in a database of animals whose owners have paid anywhere from seventy to two hundred dollars to one of several organizations, none of which are recognized by the government. (You could register a Beanie Baby, as long as you send a check.)

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In contrast to an emotional-support animal (E.S.A.), a service dog is trained to perform specific tasks, such as pulling a wheelchair and responding to seizures. The I.R.S. classifies these dogs as a deductible medical expense, whereas an emotional-support animal is more like a blankie. An E.S.A. is defined by the government as an untrained companion of any species that provides solace to someone with a disability, such as anxiety or depression. The rights of anyone who has such an animal are laid out in two laws. The Fair Housing Act says that you and your E.S.A. can live in housing that prohibits pets. The Air Carrier Access Act entitles you to fly with your E.S.A. at no extra charge, although airlines typically require the animal to stay on your lap or under the seat—this rules out emotional-support rhinoceroses. Both acts stipulate that you must have a corroborating letter from a health professional.

Sadly, many people are unsure about the exact laws and are afraid to be wrong for fear of being fined thousands of dollars for violating the Americans with Disabilities Act.   The most unfortunate part about this whole fraud is that it makes a joke out of service animals for those who really need them. I have no problem sharing my meal with a service dog for someone who has a serious medical condition. I don’t even mind watching a movie with the ferret on the shoulder of a war veteran suffering from PTSD. But it makes me angry to think that there are people out there who are taking advantage of this grey area to ease their guilt over leaving their dog home alone, or  to avoid paying extra fees for having an animal in a hotel or on a plane.

I realize that many people feel that their pet is part of their family and they want to treat them as such, but there is a huge difference between someone who WANTS their pet with them all the time and someone who NEEDS their pet with them all the time. Perhaps it’s ignorance, or maybe it’s just greed, but these people are making it more difficult for those with actual disabilities to be understood. When I was at my worst I probably could have legitimately argued that Snickers was my E.S.A., but what would that have accomplished? I know Snickers wouldn’t have wanted to be out in a stroller with thousands of people. He’s much happier in his home, sunning himself in the window.

I called the Australian philosopher and ethicist Peter Singer, who is best known for his book “Animal Liberation,” which makes a utilitarian argument for respecting the welfare and minimizing the suffering of all sentient beings. Singer takes a dim view of the emotional-support-animal craze. “Animals can get as depressed as people do,” he said, so “there is sometimes an issue about how well people with mental illnesses can look after their animals.” He went on, “If it’s really so difficult for you to be without your animal, maybe you don’t need to go to that restaurant or to the Frick Museum. 

Disability is a tricky subject; you don’t want to exclude people, but you also can’t offer a free pass for people to abuse the system. The rights of the disabled and the rights of the non disabled need to be balanced fairly. Being allergic to a plethora of things, I know I would be at risk of an asthma attack if I was forced to sit on a plane next to a E.S.A. Art galleries and museums risk damage to their inventory every time they allow an animal into their building. At what point do the the benefits outweigh the risks?

Corey Hudson, the C.E.O. of Canine Companions for Independence, a nonprofit provider of trained assistance animals, told me that he has “declared war on fake assistance dogs.” Earlier this year, his organization submitted a petition, which has now been signed by twenty-eight thousand people, to the Department of Justice, requesting that it consider setting up a registration—“like the Department of Motor Vehicles”—to test and certify assistance dogs and to regulate the sale of identification vests, badges, and so forth. “They responded that they think the law is adequate.”

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