Lately, airlines have been reconsidering their emotional support animal policies.
And you know? It’s a move this author agrees with.
Wait, wait — before you start lighting up the torches, let’s talk about why.
The Difference Between ESAs and Service Dogs
First, we need to define the differences between an emotional support animal (ESA) and a service dog. Only dogs — and, in rare cases, miniature horses — are allowed to become service animals, fully covered under the ADA’s laws.
Service dogs and miniature horses receive intensive training before they are assigned to a permanent handler. These animals are taught how to assist their handler with the handler’s particular disability, but the service dog is also taught how to behave in public. Service dogs will not run amok, they will not attack; they remain quietly ready to assist their handler, regardless of environment.
Emotional support animals (ESAs) receive no such training. ESAs can be any kind of animal: mammal, reptile, aquatic — you name it. These animals bring comfort to their handlers and lessen anxiety. These animals are not covered under the ADA’s laws; however, they are restrictively covered by a 2009 document released by the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT).
Perspective of the DOT
The DOT has been walking a fine line between supporting airline passengers’ needs without creating hazards or unintentionally discriminating against passengers with emotional support needs. Its 2009 document specifies:
The Department believes that there can be some circumstances in which a passenger may legitimately travel with an emotional support animal. However, we have added safeguards to reduce the likelihood of abuse. The final rule limits use of emotional support animals to persons with a diagnosed mental or emotional disorder, and the rule permits carriers to insist on recent documentation from a licensed mental health professional to support the passenger’s desire to travel with such an animal. In order to permit the assessment of the passenger’s documentation, the rule permits carriers to require 48 hours’ advance notice of a passenger’s wish to travel with an emotional support animal. Of course, like any service animal that a passenger wishes to bring into the cabin, an emotional support animal must be trained to behave properly in a public setting.
The DOT is doing its part to try and meet the needs of passengers. It is the public who has failed to meet the requirements of the DOT.
Free Flight at a Cost
With air travel costs as high as they are, it is tempting for people to procure a free flight for their pet. A simple visit to a local physician or mental health professional will yield the documentation they require.
If the person so chooses, they can also hop online and purchase a fake service vest for their animal — and presto. The airline will fly the animal for free. As a bonus — in most cases — the person’s pet can travel with them rather than in the cargo hold.
But while these people are “winning,” ultimately, they are costing us way too much. There are many individuals who have properly trained, well-behaved ESAs and legitimately have a need to have this animal nearby. These are the people who are paying the price for the fakers. It seems an outrage that someone with a legitimate mental disorder needs to jump through hoops to keep their ESA with them, but this may be the result if the abuse of the system does not stop.
Currently, airlines are taking a hard look at their ESA and animal in-flight policies. Prompted by recent and ever more outrageous claims — such as a woman who attempted to fly with her peacock — the airlines and the DOT are being forced to make a tough decision.
When It Goes Wrong
In June of last year, a man was severely bitten by another passenger’s emotional support dog. The dog had been seated on his handler’s lap and without provocation attacked the neighboring passenger, pinning him against the window and inflicting serious bites to the man’s face.
The dog in question had met the guidelines for flight in that his handler had provided to the airline the appropriate documentation. Clearly, however, this dog was not trained to handle a public setting properly, as is specified in the DOT’s 2009 document.
The dog and his handler were later allowed to fly out — with the dog restrained in a carrier. The bitten passenger required 28 stitches in his face and likely now has trauma of his own.
According to the New York Times, “reports of in-flight animal incidents have risen 84% since 2016,” a figure that includes not just attacks or threatening behavior but instances of animals urinating or defecating in the cabin as well.
The Real Victims
The actual victims of ESA misbehavior on flights isn’t just the legitimate human sufferers. The animals suffer as well, and this is where this author is scratching her head.
Flying is a tremendously stressful experience for people who have a basic understanding of the process. We cannot explain to an animal what is happening and why. They become frightened, anxious and stressed — which may explain why so many ESAs display inappropriate behavior.
Animals need to be trained to cope with this stressor, but many people who decide to bend the rules to fly with their pet overlook this genuine concern.
More tragically, we see incidents such as the recent NBC report in which a college student flushed her “emotional support” hamster down the toilet in order to board her flight. If this animal truly was as important to her as she claimed, it is difficult to believe she could do something so callous.
Here’s more on that peacock story:
The DOT has tried to be accommodating and for its trouble has received a barrage of incidents brought on by people who did not comply with the necessary training for their ESAs. Now, the pendulum must swing in the other direction and stricter restrictions will likely be put into place.
Both Delta and United Airlines have publicly announced that they will require stricter documentation for all animal travel beginning this year. Vaccinations records, veterinary statements, signed statements regarding the animal’s ability to behave and more may be necessary to fly with your animal.
The rub is that ESAs do have a genuine and worthy role to perform in our society. Properly trained, these animals can literally be the difference between life or death to their handlers who are suffering from a wide range of mental and emotional disorders. In their way, these ESAs are as vital as service dogs.
The real solution is to provide the support and training for ESAs that service dogs receive. Create facilities and regulations for training ESAs, and allow them to then fall under the same ADA umbrella as the service dog does.
There must also be a stronger crackdown on those who deliberately abuse the system. Currently, 19 states have a law stating that it is illegal to label an untrained dog a service dog, with Arizona considering becoming the 20th. These laws must be enforced.
In the meantime, fellow passengers are placed in the unfavorable position of having paid for their ticket and potentially having to deal with urine, feces or aggressive behavior from a so-called ESA who is really just someone’s favorite boa constrictor.
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