Emotional Support Animals: Real or Fake?

Dr. Christine Cantrell
By | 2018-03-21T14:56:57+00:00 March 21st, 2018|Opinions, Viewpoints|

Once I encountered a goat on an airplane. I had one short flight left to reach my destination from Nigeria to Ghana, and the old workhorse plane was overstuffed with luggage, squawking chickens and smelly, bleating goats. It barely lifted its nose for takeoff. This was my first exposure to the bribe culture: enough Cedis, and your goat will fly!
Animals have shared our homes and worked with us for over 10,000 years. Once tamed, interspecies relationships flourished as dogs helped humans hunt and herd, and cats protected grain stores from vermin and goats gave milk, meat and hides.
Now, we keep animals in our homes as pets for companionship. They sleep in our beds and gorge on treats we feed them. Working dogs have modern jobs as search and rescue, Seeing Eye or bomb sniffing dogs. And they might share the same cabin of a plane as you, or they might patrol with an officer at an outdoor concert.
There is a newer category of “Emotional Support Animal” in which a pet owner needs a certificate from a therapist, a pet vest and ID to permit that pet to go wherever you go. These dogs, cats, parrots, rats and hamsters do amazingly effective work, like sense a seizure in time to alert their person into a safe position, or they assist someone with physical limitations (e.g., a quadriplegic person) or reassure someone who is emotionally scarred from PTSD and give confidence to a person with Autism.
However, as this cadre surges, fake support animals, aka pets, are threatening the rights of people who rely on real working animals and the rights of people who want to avoid animals due to legitimate allergies and fears. Ours may not be a bribe economy, but it is too easy to access necessary documents on the internet for fake support animals.
I have written three or four certifying letters for emotional support animals to be able to live in their owner’s apartment, dorm or workplace, or for travel required by their owner’s job. So far, all those animals I have certified have been small and either contained as a companion rat in a cage or are a leashed dog under 10 pounds, and they are up to date on shots.
A man complains to me that when he goes to his Birmingham Starbucks for his daily cuppa Joe, pets are there, and often not on a leash. He tells the manager that animals don’t belong in a restaurant, who agrees, but doesn’t take any action. Since many people are not clear on the law, they dare not confront a pet owner, even if the pet is out of control. The man privately tells me that he is going to call the State Health Department if the manager doesn’t do something.
The {URL New York Times recently featured an airline that refused to board a peacock even though the passenger had bought a seat just for that peacock. Imagine being seated next to a peacock the next time you fly across country!
American Airlines is developing more stringent requirements for Emotional Support Animals, requiring not just a therapist’s letter of the person having a mental health disorder, but a letter from the animal’s veterinarian, vouching for the pet’s health and the owner’s ability to control that animal. Watch for these changes, coming soon.
Christine Cantrell, Ph.D., is a Fully Licensed Psychologist in private practice in Royal Oak. She and her wife have five working cats who stay at home, or at least the neighborhood, working as Pest Controllers, a la Felix, the Senior Pest Controller of Huddersfield (UK) Railroad Station: gaybe.am/46.

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Dr. Christine Cantrell