Service Animals are generally highly trained, often for years, to provide assistance to an individual with a physical disability. They pay attention to their “person,” are well behaved, hold their toileting urges until given a proper area to go, do not beg for scraps off a plate of food, are not aggressive with other animals, and do not sniff, lick or grope other people. They are trained to walk closely next to or sit meekly underneath or near the seat of their person. Such animals are specifically trained to guide the blind or provide assistance to those in wheelchairs or fetch their person who is deaf when someone is at the door. The behavior observed from these special animals confirms that they are, indeed, working service animals. It is not about these animals to which I refer, but to the many emotional support animals that are now occupying our environment.
My daughter, Marie, had been visiting friends out of state. One of them gave her a pit bull puppy, which she wanted to bring home against our wishes. (She does not have the capacity to care for such an animal independently, and, after having so many children and foster children, I am not about to start cleaning up pee and poop again!) Because she was flying home, telling her she could not bring the puppy on the plane should have sufficed. Instead, she argued she was deaf and had a right to bring the puppy on the plane. She had the basic concept, but not the facts. That puppy could not serve as an emotional support animal yet because it is was not house broken. I could envision it peeing and smelling up the long plane ride, whining and crying and sniffing and licking the person in the next seat. I could envision it annoying the passengers, forever tainting their belief that many emotional support animals are “real.”
Another incident happened during my son Francis’ flight home to California. It was a very large and full airplane with three emotional support animals on board. One cat curled up nicely on the lap of its person while being stroked tenderly, obviously a relaxing activity for a person who has extreme anxiety while flying. One dog sat quietly underneath the seat, its back being rubbed by the socked toes of its person, reducing her anxiety. However, the emotional support Chihuahua raised many eyebrows. Its person had no control over the furry animal, which barked its high-pitched bark constantly throughout the six hour flight. (One would have thought it might have taken a break to sleep, like the many airplane passengers wanted to do!) It also jumped down from the lap of its person and ran up and down the aisle, stopping to pee here and there. Its person was oblivious to the actions of her animal, and, when returned to her, was told it needed to stay in her lap for the duration of the flight. Meanwhile, the flight attendants at the rear of the plane were frantically trying to clean so the smell would not bother the passengers.
Emotional support animals do not have to be specially trained as their job is provide solace and comfort to a person with an emotional disability such as anxiety, PTSD or depression. However, they are not supposed to cause a disturbance and they must be house broken. It would be impossible to have a calming effect if they are more anxious than their person.
If they meet the requirements to be an emotional support animal, they are legally covered by the Fair Housing Act and can reside in housing that normally does not allow animals. They are also allowable on airplanes with a letter from a health professional explaining that the animal is part of the person’s treatment plan. (Yes, that is part of the law.) Flight arrangements must be made in advance because many airline carriers now limit the number allowed (although three was obviously not too many as evidenced by my son’s flight). One recent situation where a woman brought on board an emotional support peacock made national news, and in another situation a man cradled a boa constrictor that reminded the flight attendants of the movie Snakes on a Plane.
There is no doubt that a warm, cuddly animal can provide emotional support for individuals with mental health issues. Such physical contact reduces levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which must be why my daughter Marie cuddles her guinea pig during her favorite extra scary movies.