When I was flying from Detroit to Washington last year on Delta I found myself seated in coach next to a young woman who was holding a rather fat chihuahua on her lap. The dog was wearing a vest of some sort which said “therapy dog” on the side and it had a handle on top which allowed the animal to somewhat humorously be carried around like a suitcase. For reasons I don’t even want to imagine, the dog smelled distinctly of urine. (Granted, maybe it was the girl, but I’m trying to give her the benefit of the doubt here.)
I didn’t need to ask, and in fact, I never even struck up a conversation, but I knew that this animal was being passed off as a “support animal” of some sort. The young woman in question was, to all appearances, in zero need of any emotional support. She chatted away merrily with her traveling companion for the entire trip. She showed no sign of being visually impaired, not that the little beast was rigged up as a seeing eye dog to begin with. I’m one of the biggest animal lovers you’re ever likely to encounter, but I found myself annoyed for the entire trip. Not at the dog, but at the owner. This was obviously a scam and it’s not the first time I’ve seen it.
Turns out I’m not alone. This Washington Post article provides details of new policies being put in place at the major airlines to try to cut back on this charade. But that may be easier said than done.
When Marlin Jackson arrived at his row on a Delta flight from Atlanta to San Diego in June, the middle seat was already occupied by a man with a sizable dog on his lap. Jackson squeezed by them to his window seat, and the Labrador mix lunged at his face. The attack lasted about 30 seconds, according to Jackson’s attorney, and left him with facial wounds that required 28 stitches and scars that are still visible today.
The mauling, which Delta said was inflicted by a canine identified as an “emotional support” animal, was among the thousands of incidents that just pushed the nation’s largest airline to tighten rules for passengers flying with service or comfort animals. In announcing the changes Friday, Delta said it flew 250,000 animals in those categories last year, up 150 percent from 2015, while “incidents” such as biting or defecating had nearly doubled since 2016.
Delta emphasized safety concerns in detailing the increased documentation owners that will be required to provide about their animals. But its action also was spurred by a widespread perception among airlines and disability rights advocates that some fliers are fraudulently taking advantage of federal law to bring untrained pets of myriad species into crowded cabins.
There are stranger stories in that article than just the poor man whose face was ripped open by the fake emotional support dog. People have brought on emotional support cats, miniature pigs and there was at least one case of an emotional support duck. Give me a break. These people are pulling off a massive scam. I love my pets and would love to bring my hound dog along without seeing him packed into a cramped animal carrier, but that’s part of the burden of pet ownership. The beagle is certainly an emotional comfort to me, but he’s not trained to do much more than chase the occasional squeak toy, and even then it’s only if he’s in the mood.
I’m willing to bet that the majority of animals you see on flights which aren’t certified seeing eye dogs are being used in these types of scams. No, I don’t think your gerbil is a medical requirement to prevent panic attacks and your boa constrictor most certainly is not qualified to detect an oncoming stroke. I was pleased to learn that 19 states actually have laws against falsely declaring your pet to be a service animal, but even there the penalties seem rather light. California law states that you can get six months in jail and up to a $1,000 fine for falsely identifying a service animal but I’ve yet to find a case where someone was actually convicted and locked up.
This ruins flying even more for the rest of us (and it’s a miserable enough experience as it is to begin with) and those of you doing this need to be called out. It also causes problems for people with legitimate disabilities who actually need a service animal. Perhaps a good starting point would be shutting down some of these online sites where you can fill out a questionnaire and print out a certificate for your pet. If you are truly fighting that much of a medical challenge you should already have the services of a doctor who can legitimately prescribe a service animal for you.