By Marla Boone
There has never been a better time to be a dishonest person. The Internet has provided a venue for scammers of every description and some we haven’t even thought of yet. Telemarketers have discovered texting which probably requires the invention of a new word or phrase. Perhaps “those who deserve the ninth circle of hell” will do. Not being current on my reading of Dante, I’m not sure if there is a tier deeper than the ninth circle, but if there is I would like to reserve it for those who are trying to pass emotional support animals off as service animals.
Using the correct definition of the words, 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. A particularly unsavory portion of the population, though, has seen the legitimacy of service animals as an avenue to proliferate the use of emotional support animals. The differences between a service animal and an emotional support animal are both enormous and pertinent. 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 (ESA) has no special training to assist those with disabilities. Their sole talent is their presence. And what a presence. The public is now confronted with emotional support alpacas, emotional support peacocks, and emotional support spiders. I am not making this up.
In an effort to make that presence seem legitimate, an entire industry has sprouted up (surprise!) online to provide “documents” for emotional support animals. For $79, anyone can acquire a lifetime emotional support animal registration for their pet. Included in the package is a nifty-looking certificate, two ID cards, and an emotional support animal collar tag. An additional $80 will buy that spiffy vest that proclaims to the gullible that this is an emotional support animal. Do you know what all this means? It means some animal owner has anted up $159 for things that will fool people who don’t know the difference between a service animal and an emotional support animal. And fool them they do. ESA are everywhere. Restaurants, hotels, taxis, and, saints preserve us, airplanes. “What?” you say. “I see animals in hotels and on airplanes all the time.” Very few of these are service animals. What the owners of ESA have discovered is that if they wave their bogus documents around and shroud their pet in its vest, they can bring their animals into otherwise off-limit spaces. In the past twenty years, I have seen approximately zero service dogs on commercial flights. 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 widespread emotional meltdowns or we are seeing a fabulous scam being visited upon airline travel. The Air Carrier Access Act made it all possible. All you need is those ESA credentials. And here’s how easy it is to get those. You need a “therapist” who will vouch for your anxiety or depression. There are, of course, unfortunate individuals who truly are anxious or depressed. And there are those who Google emotional support animal and click on one of the hundreds of willing “professionals” who will spend a few minutes on the phone with you, evaluating your precarious mental health. For $140. If you don’t want some pseudo-therapist talking to you, you can spend an another $50 and not have to go through the rigors of speaking at all. You fill out a questionnaire (surprise!) online and have paperwork in hand in less than a week.
Most airlines limit the number of animals allowed on a flight. What is especially loathsome about the ESA-pass abusers is the notion that a wannabe ESA could prevent a true service animal from being permitted to board. Because the number of ESA has grown, so have the untoward incidents. There has been a 500% increase in the number of complaints about ESA, including the infamous episode of an ESA pig defecating all over an American Airlines flight. Alleged ESAs have bitten other dogs, have been unruly enough to require a muzzle, and have been spotted sporting diapers. Complaints about service animals have not gone up at all.
As usual, the onus of fixing the problem will lie with the law-abiding. Anyone attempting to have their animal with them on a commercial flight should be required to provide factual documentation the animal is necessary. Even this doesn’t go far enough. The animal ought to fulfill every 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