What a wonderful time it is for the scammer, the conniver, and the cheat: the underage drinkers who flash fake I.D.s, the able-bodied adults who drive cars with handicapped license plates, the parents who use a phony address so that their child can attend a more desirable public school, the customers with eleven items who stand in the express lane. The latest group to bend the law is pet owners.
Take a look around. See the St. Bernard slobbering over the shallots at Whole Foods? Isn’t that a Rottweiler sitting third row, mezzanine, at Carnegie Hall? As you will have observed, an increasing number of your neighbors have been keeping company with their pets in human-only establishments, cohabiting with them in animal-unfriendly apartment buildings and dormitories, and taking them (free!) onto airplanes—simply by claiming that the creatures are their licensed companion animals and are necessary to their mental well-being. No government agency keeps track of such figures, but in 2011 the National Service Animal Registry, a commercial enterprise that sells certificates, vests, and badges for helper animals, signed up twenty-four hundred emotional-support animals. Last year, it registered eleven thousand.
What about the mental well-being of everyone else? One person’s emotional support can be another person’s emotional trauma. Last May, for instance, a woman brought her large service dog, Truffles, on a US Airways flight from Los Angeles to Philadelphia. At thirty-five thousand feet, the dog squatted in the aisle and, according to Chris Law, a passenger who tweeted about the incident, “did what dogs do.” After the second, ahem, installment, the crew ran out of detergent and paper towels. “Plane is emergency landing cuz ppl are getting sick,” Law tweeted. “Hazmat team needs to board.” The woman and Truffles disembarked, to applause, in Kansas City, and she offered her inconvenienced fellow-passengers Starbucks gift cards.
In June, a miniature Yorkie caused a smaller stir, at a fancy Manhattan restaurant. From a Google review of Altesi Ristorante: “Lunch was ruined because Ivana Trump sat next to us with her dog which she even let climb to the table. I told her no dogs allowed but she lied that hers was a service dog.” I called the owner of Altesi, Paolo Alavian, who defended Trump. “She walked into the restaurant and she showed the emotional-support card,” he said. “Basically, people with the card are allowed to bring their dogs into the restaurant. This is the law.”
Alavian is mistaken about that. 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.) Even with a card, it is against the law and a violation of the city’s health code to take an animal into a restaurant. Nor does an emotional-support card entitle you to bring your pet into a hotel, store, taxi, train, or park.
No such restrictions apply to service dogs, which, like Secret Service agents and Betty White, are allowed to go anywhere. 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.
Fortunately for animal-lovers who wish to abuse the law, there is a lot of confusion about just who and what is allowed where. I decided to go undercover as a person with an anxiety disorder (not a stretch) and run around town with five un-cuddly, non-nurturing animals for which I obtained E.S.A. credentials (one animal at a time; I’m not that crazy). You should know that I am not in the habit of breaking (I mean, exploiting) the law, and, as far as animals go, I like them_—_medium rare.
The first animal I test-drove was a fifteen-pound, thirteen-inch turtle. I tethered it to a rabbit leash, to which I had stapled a cloth E.S.A. badge (purchased on Amazon), and set off for the Frick Collection.
“One, please,” I said to the woman selling tickets, who appeared not to notice the reptile writhing in my arms, even though people in line were taking photos of us with their cell phones. I petted the turtle’s feet. “Just a moment,” the woman said. “Let me get someone.”
“Oh, my God,” I heard one guard say to another. “That woman has a turtle. I’ll call security.”
“Is it a real turtle?” Guard No. 2 said to Guard No. 1. Minutes passed. A man in a uniform appeared.
“No, no, no. You can’t take in an animal,” he said.
“It’s an emotional-support animal,” I said.
“I have a letter,” I said.
“You have a letter? Let me see it,” he said, with the peremptoriness you might have found at Checkpoint Charlie. Here are some excerpts from the letter, which I will tell you more about later, when I introduce you to my snake:
To Whom It May Concern:
RE: Patricia Marx
Ms. Marx has been evaluated for and diagnosed with a mental health disorder as defined in the DSM-5. Her psychological condition affects daily life activities, ability to cope, and maintenance of psychological stability. It also can influence her physical status.
Ms. Marx has a turtle that provides significant emotional support, and ameliorates the severity of symptoms that affect her daily ability to fulfill her responsibilities and goals. Without the companionship, support, and care-taking activities of her turtle, her mental health and daily living activities are compromised. In my opinion, it is a necessary component of treatment to foster improved psychological adjustment, support functional living activities, her well being, productivity in work and home responsibilities, and amelioration of the severity of psychological issues she experiences in some specific situations to have an Emotional Support Animal (ESA).
She has registered her pet with the Emotional Support Animal Registration of America. This letter further supports her pet as an ESA, which entitles her to the rights and benefits legitimized by the Fair Housing Act and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. It allows exceptions to housing, and transportation services that otherwise would limit her from being able to be accompanied by her emotional support animal.
The Frick man read the letter and disappeared, returning with another uniformed man, to whom he said, “She has a letter.”
“Can I see it, please?” the new man said. He read the letter, then looked up. “How old is he?” he said.
“Seven,” I answered.
The Frick does not admit children younger than ten, but evidently the rule does not apply to turtles, because the man gestured welcomingly, and the turtle and I went and had a look at the Vermeers.
“Big for seven, isn’t he?” the man said.
I wouldn’t know. Turtle (her actual name) is a red-eared slider who lives in Brooklyn, the property of a former mail carrier who was kind enough to lend her to me for the day.
On her inaugural visit to Manhattan, Turtle and I also made stops at Christian Louboutin, where she cozied up to a glittery $6,395 stiletto, and I, trying to snap a photo, was told, “Turtles are allowed, but no photography”; E.A.T., the high-end delicatessen, where I had a bowl of borscht and the turtle hydrated from, and also in, a dish of water provided by our waiter; NK Hair Salon, where a manicurist agreed to give Turtle a pedicure for an upcoming bar mitzvah (“You’ll have to hold her toes down under the dryer”); Maison du Chocolat; and the Frank E. Campbell Funeral Chapel, to inquire whether I could pre-pay for the turtle’s burial. “But it will outlive us all,” a sombrely dressed representative said in a sombre consultation room.
Why didn’t anybody do the sensible thing, and tell me and my turtle to get lost? The Americans with Disabilities Act allows you to ask someone with a service animal only two questions: Is the animal required because of a disability? What work or task has the animal been trained to perform? Specific questions about a person’s disability are off limits, and, as I mentioned, people are baffled by the distinction between service animals and emotional-support animals.
Len Kain, the editor-in-chief of dogfriendly.com, a Web site that features pet-travel tips, said, “The law is fuzzy. If you ask one too many questions, you’re in legal trouble for violating the Americans with Disabilities Act and could face fines of up to a hundred thousand dollars. But, if you ask one too few questions, you’re probably not in trouble, and at worst will be given a slap on the wrist.”
If you want to turn your pet into a certified E.S.A., all you need is a therapist type who will vouch for your mental un-health. Don’t have one? Enter “emotional-support animal” into Google and take your pick among hundreds of willing professionals. Through a site called ESA Registration of America, I found a clinical social worker in California who, at a cost of a hundred and forty dollars, agreed to evaluate me over the phone to discuss the role of Augustus, the snake, in my life. To prepare for the session, I concocted a harrowing backstory: When I was six, I fell into a pond and almost drowned. There was a snake in the water that I grabbed on to just before I was rescued by my father, and, ever since, I’d found comfort in scaly vertebrates.
“Now, let’s talk about your problems,” the therapist said, in the sort of soothing voice you might use when speaking to someone who has one day to live. “What’s your snake’s name?”
“Augustus,” I said.
“How does Augustus help you with your problems?”
“How far back should I go?” I asked, itching to tell my story about the pond.
“Just the last six months,” she said.
“Um, he provides unconditional love, and I feel safe when he’s around,” I said. “He’s a good icebreaker, too, if I’m feeling shy.”
“You want to have more ease outside the house,” the therapist summed up. “Now I want to do a generalized-anxiety screening with you,” she said. “In the last fourteen days, have you felt anxious or on edge nearly every day, more than seven days, or less than seven days?”
“I’d say around seven,” I replied. Using the same parameters, she asked me to rate my worrying, trouble relaxing, ability to sit still, irritability, and dread that something awful might happen. The next day, I received the following e-mail:
It was my pleasure to speak to you today.
Attached is your ESA letter.
Enjoy the benefits of having your dog (sic) with you more now.
All the best,
I’d better come clean. This was the only time I was evaluated. On my other outings with animals, I brandished a doctored version of the original snake letter. (If talking seems too last-century, you can consult thedogtor.net, where getting your E.S.A. certified is “only a mouse-click away.” You fill out a seventy-four-question medical exam online and receive your paperwork within two days, for just a hundred and ninety dollars.)
So I was off to SoHo to be put at ease by a Mexican milk snake named Augustus, which I borrowed from a friend. With his penchant for coiling all thirty inches of himself around my neck and face, he felt less like an animal than like an emotional-support accessory—say, a scarf. He is the diameter of a garden hose, as smooth as an old wallet, and gorgeously marked with bands of yellow, black, and rusty red. As I walked down Wooster Street, Augustus tickled my ear and then started to slither down my blouse. (Men!) His owner had warned me, “He is good for parting the crowd on a busy midtown sidewalk,” and she was right.
“Look, a snake,” I heard a young woman say to her boyfriend, as we passed on our way to an apartment open house on West Broadway. A moment later, I heard a yelp and a splat, and turned around to see that the startled fellow had dropped his can of soda. The real-estate agent, by contrast, went on about the granite countertop and the home office that could be converted to a nursery, but ignored the snake, which had got stuck in my hair tie. Maybe a serpent is one of those things that it’s best to put up with when you’re trying to sell a $5.2-million three-bedroom.
Here’s what happened at the Chanel boutique: “Hello. I’m looking for a pocketbook that will match my snake,” I said to a salesman. “Maybe something in reptile.” I shuffled Augustus from one hand to the other as though he were a Slinky.
“I’m sorry, Ma’am, I have a thing against snakes, so let me get someone else to assist you,” he said, as if he were telling the host at a dinner party, “No dessert for me, thank you.”
A colleague appeared. “Wow,” he said, leading me to a display case. “We do have snakeskin bags back here. Is he nice? Does he bite?” The salesman handed me a smart, yellow python bag marked $9,000. “I think this would work the best. It’s one of our classics. I think yellow. Red makes the snake look too dull.”
The welcome wasn’t as warm at Mercer Kitchen, where a maître d’ responded to my request for a table by saying, “Not with that!”
“But it’s a companion animal,” I said. “It’s against the law not to let me in.”
“I understand,” he said. “But I need you to take that out.”
Over at Balthazar, once the woman at the front desk confirmed with her superior that snakes could count as emotional-support animals, I was able to make a lunch reservation for the following week. (“So that’s how you get a table there,” a friend said.) An hour later, I learned that the Angelika Film Center does not require you to purchase a separate ticket for your snake, and that the Nespresso coffee bar is much too cold for an ectotherm.
To think that animals were once merely our dinner, or what we wore to dinner! Fifteen thousand years ago, certain wolves became domesticated and evolved into dogs. One thing led to another, and, notwithstanding some moments in history that dogs and cats would probably not want to bring up (like the time Pope Gregory IX declared cats to be the Devil incarnate), pets have gradually become cherished members of our families. According to “Citizen Canine,” a book by David Grimm, sixty-seven per cent of households in America have a cat or a dog (compared with forty-three per cent who have children), and eighty-three per cent of pet owners refer to themselves as their animal’s “mom” or “dad.” Seventy per cent celebrate the pet’s birthday. Animals are our best friends, our children, and our therapists.
“I hate all of these people,” Jerry Saltz, the art critic for New York, told me, referring to pet owners “who can’t be alone without their dogs or who feel guilty about leaving their dumb dogs home alone.” He went on, “A few years ago, my wife and I were flabbergasted to see a smug-looking guy sauntering through MOMA while his ‘comfort dog’ happily sniffed the paintings, as if to pee on one. I ran up to a guard and started yelling, ‘That guy’s dog is about to pee on the Pollock!’ She looked at me and said, ‘There’s nothing we can do about it.’ ”
Why did the turkey cross the road? To get to the Hampton Jitney. How did the twenty-six-pound fowl get across? With me hoisting him by his “Emotional Support Animal” harness, as if he were a duffel bag.
“You’re taking this with you?” an attendant asked, standing in front of the luxury bus on Eighty-sixth Street. Henry was a Royal Palm, a breed not known for its tastiness but one that could easily make the cover of People’s sexiest-poultry issue. His plumage is primarily white, but many of the feathers are accented with a tip of jet black, giving him a Franz Kline Abstract Expressionist feel.
“Yes,” I said, handing the man two tickets, one for me and one for Hope, the turkey’s ten-year-old neighbor, in Orange County, New York. Henry flapped his wings furiously, dispersing a good amount of down into the air and emitting noises not unlike the electronic beeps that a car makes when it’s too close to the curb. Henry had been driven in from the farm that morning.
“Did you talk to the company?” the attendant asked.
“Yes,” I fibbed.
“Good boy, good boy,” Hope whispered to the heaving bird, as I strained to lift him up the bus’s stairs.
“He’s my therapy animal,” I primly told the driver. “Do you want to see the letter from my therapist?” The question was not acknowledged.
“Easy, buddy,” Hope said, helping me to park Henry on a seat next to the window. Soon the bus was lurching down Lexington Avenue. The turkey angrily flapped his wings. I hovered in the aisle, because, truth be told, I was a bit emotional around my emotional-support animal.
“If you sit with him, maybe he’ll calm down, right?” the attendant said. I slid in next to Henry, whose eyes seemed fixed on the Chase bank sign out the window.
“Did you take him for immunizations and everything?” the optimistic attendant asked. Simultaneously, I said yes and Hope said no.
“How much food does he eat?” the attendant continued. “Like, half a pound?” A huddle of passengers had gathered in the aisle, and a lot of phone pictures were snapped. The Jitney stopped at Fifty-ninth Street to let on more passengers.
“Is that a real turkey?” a woman said to her friend as she passed Henry. (No matter what the animal du jour, someone always asked me whether it was real.)
At Fortieth Street, Henry and I, who had pressing appointments in Manhattan, disembarked (“Oh, no. I think I forgot something,” I said. “I have to get off”), leaving a trail of plumage behind. The attendant, who asked for a picture of himself with the turkey, was more perplexed by our getting off (“You’re going to pay thirty dollars to get off at Fortieth Street!”) than by our getting on.
Next stop: Katz’s Delicatessen, at the corner of Ludlow and East Houston Streets. “How many?” the guy at the front desk asked, after I’d shown him the therapist’s letter and we were joined by two of Henry’s human friends.
“Four, plus the turkey,” Hope said. We followed a waiter through the crowd until Henry, whom I’d been leading on a leash, plopped onto the floor in a spot that blocked traffic. Hope and I dragged him to a table and hoisted him onto a chair, on which he lay immobile, on his side with his feet splayed as if he’d conked out on the sofa, watching TV. A wing drooped over one side of the chair.
“What kind of emotional support do you get from him?” a man asked. Henry’s E.S.A. badge had come off earlier, when he jumped onto a dumpster on East Houston Street (“He needs to roost,” Hope’s mom said), but the news of his presence had spread among the diners as if he were Jack Nicholson.
Depending on his mood, a turkey’s head and neck can be red, white, blue, or, if very excited, some combination of the three. After lunch, Henry’s head had turned purple. His handlers decided that he was “too stressed” and ought to be getting back to the farm.
“Too stressed for yoga?” I said, having hoped to take the turkey to a class at Jivamukti. Did my emotional-support animal need a support animal? [cartoon id="a18585"]
Reflecting on whether it is reasonable to be this inclusive of man’s best friends, 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. ”
An alpaca looks so much like a big stuffed animal that if you walked around F.A.O. Schwarz with one nobody would notice. What if you tried to buy a ticket for one on an Amtrak train? The alpaca in question was four and a half feet tall, weighed a hundred and five pounds, and had a Don King haircut. My mission: to take her on a train trip from Hudson, New York, to Niagara Falls.
“Ma’am, you can’t take that,” a ticket agent at the Hudson station drawled, in the casual manner in which you might say, “No flip-flops on the tennis court.”
“It’s a therapy animal. I have a letter.”
“O.K.,” she said flatly. “That’s a first.” I paid for our tickets. On the platform, the alpaca, whose name was Sorpresa, started making a series of plaintive braying noises that sounded like a sad party horn. Alpaca aficionados call this type of vocalization humming, and say that it can communicate curiosity, concern, boredom, fear, or contentment but is usually a sign of distress. Sorpresa’s wranglers, who raise alpacas for wool, and who had accompanied us, decided that she’d be better off staying closer to home. They had no problem, though, with her accompanying me to CVS and to some art galleries along Hudson’s Warren Street (man in gallery: “Wow! Are they the ones that spit?”). In fact, alpacas rarely spit at humans.
At Olana, a New York State Historic Site, showcasing the nineteenth-century home of the painter Frederic Edwin Church, Sorpresa and I were stopped at the visitors’ center by an apologetic tour guide. A higher-up named Paul was summoned, and kindly broke it to me that animals were not permitted.
“It’s a museum and a historic home,” he said. “There are thousands of distinct objects in there that are over a hundred and twenty years old. I’m sorry, but we just have never been able to take that risk.”
While the alpaca stood, perfectly behaved, in the gift shop among hand-painted porcelain tiles, glass vases, and antique lanterns, and I fielded questions from shoppers (“Are you allergic to dogs?”), Paul consulted the site manager in charge of Olana. They called their boss in Albany to ask for guidance.
When you hear that the livestock in your custody has been granted permission to clomp through the premises of a national treasure that houses hundreds of priceless antiques, you do not feel unequivocal joy—particularly when the beast has been known to kick backward if a threat from the rear is perceived. Don’t ask me anything about Frederic Church’s home. Could you really expect me to concentrate on the art when all I kept thinking was: “Didn’t the owners say that when the alpaca’s tail is held aloft it means she has to go to the bathroom?” By the time we reached Church’s entertainment room, Sorpresa was intently humming a distress signal.
“She needs lunch,” I mumbled, and we made a hasty retreat. When I returned the alpaca to her owner and told him about our visit to Olana, he said, “I’m not sure whether it reaffirms my faith in humanity or destroys it.”
People with genuine impairments who depend on actual service animals are infuriated by the sort of imposture I perpetrated with my phony E.S.A.s. Nancy Lagasse suffers from multiple sclerosis and owns a service dog that can do everything from turning lights on and off to emptying her clothes dryer. “I’m shocked by the number of people who go online and buy their pets vests meant for working dogs,” she told me. “These dogs snarl and go after my dog. They set me up for failure, because people then assume my dog is going to act up.”
Carry a baby down the aisle of an airplane and passengers look at you as if you were toting a machine gun. Imagine, then, what it’s like travelling with a one-year-old pig who oinks, grunts, and screams, and who, at twenty-six pounds, is six pounds heavier than the average carry-on baggage allowance and would barely fit in the overhead compartment of the aircraft that she and I took from Newark to Boston. Or maybe you can’t imagine this.
During check-in, the ticket agent, looking up to ask my final destination, did a double take.
She said, “Oh . . . have you checked with . . . I don’t think JetBlue allows . . .”
I rehashed my spiel about the letter and explained that days ago, when I bought the tickets, the service representative said that I could bring Daphne, my pig, as long as she sat on my lap.
“Give me one second,” the agent said, picking up the phone. “I’m checking with my supervisor.” (Speaking into phone: “Yes, with a pig . . . yeah, yeah . . . in a stroller.”) The agent hung up and printed out boarding passes for me and the pig’s owner, Sophie Wolf.
“I didn’t want to make a mistake,” he said. “If there’s a problem, Verna, at the gate, will help you. Does she run fast?”
I’m pleased to report that passing through security with a pig in your arms is easier than doing so without one: you get to keep your shoes on and skip the full-body scanner.
“Frank, you never told me you had a brother!” one security officer yelled to another, as Frank helped me retrieve my purse from the security bin. A third officer, crouching to address Daphne, whose head was poking out of her stroller, said, “You’re a celebrity. Will you sign autographs later?” The pig grunted.
“How is that even allowed?” I heard a peeved woman behind me say, as I made my way down the jet bridge with my arms clasped around the pig’s torso, its head and trotters dangling below. We settled into seats 16A and 16B, since JetBlue does not allow animals in bulkhead or emergency exit aisles. On the floor near our seats, Wolf spread a—I’ll just say it—“wee-wee pad,” while Daphne arranged herself on my lap, digging her sharp hooves into my thighs. She sniffed and snorted, detecting the arrival of the in-flight chips before they were announced.
“If I let her, she’d eat all day—she’s a pig,” Wolf said, searching her bag for treats. In case of airplane ear, she had also brought a pack of Trident for Daphne, who likes to chew gum. Daphne thrust her snout toward the smell of Gerber Puffs, knocking Wolf’s hand, and a quantity of cereal snacks was catapulted into the air. As the pig gobbled up every Puff on the seat, a flight attendant passed Row 16.
“Aren’t you adorable!” she said.
“Holy shit! ” the woman in back of us said, spying Daphne. “I feel like I’m on drugs. Now I need a drink.”
We spent a pleasant day in Boston. One of us grazed on Boston Common, wagging her tail whenever she heard pop music with a strong beat. We took a ride on the Swan Boat and then went to the Four Seasons for afternoon tea, where the letter was trotted out once more. As I pushed the stroller, its privacy panel zipped up, through the dining room, a woman, looking aghast, said, “Oh, my Gawd, your baby is oinking!” At our table, Wolf discreetly fed Daphne some raspberries and a scone, but drew the line at prosciutto sandwiches.
Just when I thought I had successfully taken advantage of the law, I almost tripped up. A taxi-driver balked when he saw the porcine member of our party.
“It’s illegal in Massachusetts to have an animal in a taxi, unless it’s a service dog,” he said.
“But it’s an emotional-support animal,” I said.
“It doesn’t matter,” he replied.
“Look, I have a—” I said, fumbling in my purse for the dog-eared piece of paper.
“If a policeman sees me, I’d get in a lot of trouble,” he said.
I was about to give up when he said, “I’ll take you anyway. But it’s not allowed.”
In point of fact, as I learned when I later looked it up online, the city of Boston is O.K. with taxi-drivers transporting animals, but they are not required to do so unless the animal is a service dog.
Back at Logan, Daphne regained her superstar status.
A smiling agent, approaching us at the gate, said, “We heard a cute piggy went through security.” She added, “If you want to pre-board, the cabin crew would love it.”
At the entrance to the plane, we were greeted by three giddy flight attendants: “Oh, my God, don’t you just love her?” “I’m so jealous. I want one!”; “I hope you’re in my section”; “I’m coming back for pictures.”
As we exited at Newark, a member of the flight crew pinned pilot’s wings onto Daphne’s E.S.A. sweatshirt.
“Are you going to ruin it for all of us?” one of my dog-fancying friends asked, when I told her that I was writing this article. I was surprised to learn how many of my acquaintances were the owners of so-called emotional-support animals. They defend the practice by saying that they don’t want to leave their pets home alone, or they don’t want to have to hire dog-walkers, or they don’t want their pets to have to ride in a plane’s cargo hold, or that Europeans gladly accept dogs everywhere. They have tricks to throw skeptics off guard. “People can’t ask about my disability,” one friend told me. “But if I feel that I’m in a situation where I might have a struggle being let in somewhere with my dog, then I come up with a disorder that sounds like a nightmare. I like to be creative. I’ll say I lack a crucial neurotransmitter that prevents me from processing anxiety and that, without the dog, I’m likely to black out and urinate.”
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.”
No animals were harmed during the writing of this article, but one journalist did have to get down on her hands and knees to clean her carpet. ♦
Service animals are animals that have been trained to perform tasks that assist people with disabilities. Service animals may also be referred to as assistance animals, assist animals, support animals, or helper animals depending on the country and the animal's function.
Dogs are the most common service animals, assisting people in many different ways since at least 1927. Other animals such as monkeys, birds, and horses have also been documented.
In places of public accommodation in the United States, only dogs (and in some cases miniature horses) are legally considered service animals. It is legal in certain states to have service "animals". For instance, in Montana all animals are allowed at state level. Many cats, birds, and even a wolf are working to help mitigate people's disabilities in Montana. It is also legal to train your own service animal in the United States. There is a broader definition for assistance animals under the US Fair Housing Act as well as a broader definition for service animals under the US Air Carrier Access Act. In the United States, prior to a revision of the Americans with Disabilities Act going into effect March 15, 2011 types of animals other than service dogs and miniature horses were protected at least on the Federal level; individual states could expand coverage.
The international assistance animal community has categorized three types of assistance animals:
- Guide animal—to guide the blind
- Hearing animal—to signal the hearing impaired
- Service animal—to do work for persons with disabilities other than blindness or deafness.
Despite regulations or rules that deny access to animals in restaurants and other public places, in many countries, guide dogs, other types of assistance dogs, and in cases miniature horses, are protected by law, and therefore may accompany their handlers in most places that are open to the public. Laws and regulations vary worldwide:
- In the United States, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 prohibits any business, government agency, or other organization that provides access to the general public from barring guide dogs. However, religious organizations are not required to provide such access. Current federal regulations define "service animal" for ADA purposes to exclude all species of animals other than domestic dogs and miniature horses. Other laws, though, still provide broader definitions in other areas. For instance, the Department of Transportation's regulations enacting the Air Carrier Access Act permit "dogs and other service animals" to accompany passengers on commercial airlines. The Fair Housing Act also requires housing providers to permit service animals (including comfort and emotional support animals) without species restrictions in housing.
- Revised ADA Requirements: "Beginning on March 15, 2011, only dogs are recognized as service animals under titles II and III of the ADA. A service animal is a dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for a person with a disability. Generally, title II and title III entities must permit service animals to accompany people with disabilities in all areas where members of the public are allowed to go.In addition to the provisions about service dogs, the Department’s revised ADA regulations have a new, separate provision about miniature horses that have been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities. (Miniature horses generally range in height from 24 inches to 34 inches measured to the shoulders and generally weigh between 70 and 100 pounds.) Entities covered by the ADA must modify their policies to permit miniature horses where reasonable. The regulations set out four assessment factors to assist entities in determining whether miniature horses can be accommodated in their facility. The assessment factors are (1) whether the miniature horse is housebroken; (2) whether the miniature horse is under the owner’s control; (3) whether the facility can accommodate the miniature horse’s type, size, and weight; and (4) whether the miniature horse’s presence will not compromise legitimate safety requirements necessary for safe operation of the facility.",
- In most South American countries and Mexico, guide dog access depends solely upon the goodwill of the owner or manager. In more tourist-heavy areas, guide dogs are generally welcomed without problems. In Brazil, however, a 2006 federal decree requires allowance of guide dogs in all public and open to public places. The Brasília Metro has developed a program which trains guide dogs to ride it.
- In Europe, the situation varies by location. Some countries have laws that govern the entire country and sometimes the decision is left up to the respective regions.
- In Australia, the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 protects all assistance dog handlers. Current laws may not ensure that assistance dog users can always have their service animals present in all situations. Each state and territory has its own laws, which mainly pertain to guide dogs. Queensland has introduced the Guide Hearing and Assistance Dog Act 2009 that covers all certified assistance dogs.
- In Canada, guide dogs along with other service animals are allowed anywhere that the general public is allowed, as long as the owner is in control of them. Fines for denying a service animal access can be up to $3000 in Alberta, Canada.
- In South Korea, it is illegal to deny access to guide dogs in any areas that are open to the public. Violators are fined for no more than 2 million won.
Overall view of a service animal
Service animals can be of many species and come in many sizes. Dogs, cats, dolphins, miniature horses, monkeys, ducks, ferrets, and parrots have all been trained to perform specific duties of a service animal, though the type of animal that may be registered as a "service animal" may vary depending on legal definitions. The people that can qualify for a service animal can have a range of physical, mental, or emotional disabilities.
A guide animal is an animal specifically trained to assist visually impaired persons to navigate in public. These animals may be trained to open doors, recognize traffic signals, guide their owners safely across public streets, and navigate through crowds of people. A mobility animal may perform similar services for a person with physical disabilities, as well as assisting with balance or falling issues. Hearing animals are trained to assist hearing-impaired or deaf persons. These animals may be trained to respond to doorbells or a ringing phone or to tug their owners toward a person who is speaking to them. Mental health animals can be trained to provide deep-pressure therapy by lying on top of a person who may be suffering from PSTDflashbacks, overstimulation, or acute anxiety. Similarly, autism dogs have been recently introduced to recognize and respond to the needs of people with autism spectrum disorder; some persons with ASD state that they are more comfortable interacting with animals than with human caregivers due to issues regarding eye contact, touch, and socialization. Medical emergency animals can assist in medical emergency and perform such services as clearing an area in the event of a grand mal seizure, fetching medication or other necessary items, alerting others in the event of a medical episode; some may even be trained to call emergency services through use of a telephone with specially designed oversized buttons.
The animals also provide important companionship and emotional support for owners who might otherwise be isolated due to disability. The owners in turn often derive a sense of accomplishment and importance from attending to the needs of their animals.
Animals for individual assistance
Many service animals may be trained to perform tasks to help their disabled partners live independent lives. Such animals include:
- Seizure sensing dogs, trained to sense epileptic seizures in their partner. Dogs can support a litany of both physical and mental disabilities.
- Capuchin monkeys, which can be trained to perform manual tasks such as grasping items, operating knobs and switches, and turning the pages of a book.
A miniature horse can be trained to guide the blind, to pull wheelchairs, or as support for persons with Parkinson's disease.
A full-grown miniature horse can vary from 26” to 38”. There are two main registering organizations. The American Miniature Horse Association limits height to 34” whereas the American Miniature Horse Registry has a division for horses 34” to 38”.
There are a number of advantages of miniature horses as service animals. Miniature horses may be chosen by people whose religion considers dogs to be unclean or who have serious allergies to dogs, as well as phobias. Miniature horses have average lifespans of 30–40 years (longer than those of both service dogs and monkeys) and take 6 months to a year of training, done only by professional trainers.
Guide horse users report they typically are immediately recognized as a working service animal, whereas a dog may be mistaken for a pet. Miniature horses have been praised for their excellent range of vision (350 degrees), good memories, calm nature, focused demeanor, and good cost-effectiveness.
A helper monkey is a type of assistance animal, similar to an assistance dog, that is specially trained to help people with quadriplegia, severe spinal cord injuries, or other mobility impairments.
Helper monkeys are usually trained in schools by private organizations, taking 7 years to train, and are able to serve 25–30 years (two to three times longer than a guide dog).
After being socialized in a human home as infants, the monkeys undergo extensive training before being placed with an individual needing assistance. Around the house, the monkeys assist in daily living by doing tasks including microwaving food, washing their human's face, and opening drink bottles.
In 2010, the U.S. federal government revised its definition of service animal under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Non-human primates are no longer recognized as service animals under the ADA. The American Veterinary Medical Association does not support the use of nonhuman primates as assistance animals because of animal welfare concerns, the potential for serious injury to people, and risks that primates may transfer dangerous diseases to humans.
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