When Kari Whitman of Ace of Hearts Dog Rescue brought her emotional support dog Hank on an American Airlines flight last year, other passengers couldn't help but take notice. The grossly obese dog had to be hauled onto the flight in a cart. He had his own seat in first class, but spent most of the trip lying on the floor of the plane near Whitman.
Hank was a model passenger compared to a pot-bellied emotional support pig that boarded a U.S. Airways crowded Thanksgiving morning flight from Connecticut to Washington in 2014. At first passengers thought that the tattooed woman with the pig was carrying a giant stuffed animal over her shoulder, but when the pig hopped down, pooped in the aisle and squealed, they knew otherwise.
As complaints from airlines and passengers mount over the large array of animals being hauled onto planes by their supposedly emotionally dependent owners, the Department of Transportation is taking a closer look at size and species restrictions for these animals. A DOT Advisory Committee on Accessible Air Transportation is meeting this week to decide on guidelines.
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Service animals, such as those that help blind people, are limited to dogs and, in some cases, miniature horses. Since 2003, when the DOT revised its policy on service animals to include emotional-support animals, there have been no restrictions for these animals. An added perk for pet owners is that their animals can essentially fly for free -- right in the cabin.
"American Airlines has transported many species as service animals, including pigs and birds," Ross Feinstein, a spokesman for AA, told Seeker. "Primary complaints have been about animal behavior."
Passengers with allergies or animal phobias have filed complaints with various airlines. One person's emotional support animal can be another individual's nightmare.
Problems aren't limited to flying either. People have been allowed to wear giant boa constrictors around their necks in stores because the snakes function as emotional support animals. Daniel Greene, who suffers from seizures, claimed that his snake alerted him to pending seizures by giving him a neck hug. Onlookers have not been so comfortable around the seemingly mild-mannered boa.
Then there is also a provision under the Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988 that views emotional support animals as "reasonable accommodation," even in homes and housing communities that have a "no pets" rule.
The incentive, then, to register a pet as an emotional support animal is clear: free flights, companionship in places that otherwise wouldn't allow pets, and a way to stick it to landlords with no-pet rules.
Plus, the registration process can be ridiculously easy. Technically a person has to provide a letter from a licensed mental health practitioner attesting to the psychological benefit of a pet's presence.But some websites claim to provide this letter after a three-minute screening process. All it takes is a few online clicks, filling out some surveys - and a payment.
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Caught up in the mess are people who legitimately need such animals, physically disabled people who are worried about their service animal rights, and the psychologists who are often asked by their patients to provide supporting documentation.
Geoff Ewart says his wife's need to fly with her German Shepherd is sincere. Ewart wrote to the DOT as part of a comment-gathering process tied to this week's meeting, explaining his wife has "relatively severe anxiety that, among other difficulties, surfaces as a fear of flying, having her emotional support animal with her when she's traveling -- especially when flying alone -- makes a big difference in her life."
However, some psychologists are uncomfortable being put in the middle of the situation, or realize later what a tangle they've just entered. Jeffrey Younggren, a professor of clinical and forensic psychology at the University of Missouri, recently conducted a study on this issue with grad student Cassie Boness and psychologist Jennifer Boisvert.
"Most (psychologists) do not understand how serious the letter is and that it is a formal disability letter," Younggren told me. "When this is explained to them and what the implications of such a certification might be -- for example, testifying in court to substantiate the opinion -- they are quite happy to leave these certifications to more qualified evaluators."
Younggren and his colleagues believe that the evaluation process should address specific psychological issues that are going to be improved, and not just that the owner wants to be with their pet.
Most importantly, the researchers believe that the evaluations cannot be done briefly or online through the use of questionnaires.
As Younggren said, "we need to raise the bar on what must be done here."
New DOT regulations on emotional support animals are expected to be out for public comment within the year, although new rules could take months or years to take effect.
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