The peacock was just the tip of the iceberg.
An emotional support peacock named Dexter kicked off a controversy last month when United Airlines refused to allow the bird to board a flight leaving Newark, N.J. In an instant, the peacock became a symbol of the growing number of emotional support animals accompanying their owners onto airplanes and into stores and other places of business.
There is no official tally of emotional support animals, which don’t have to go through special training or have any certifications; most are simply recommended by a doctor or therapist. Nevertheless, the number of companies that say they provide those certifications is growing and with that, businesses say, the ranks of people trying to pass their pets off as support animals for illegitimate reasons are increasing as well.
The number of animals showing up to travel and shop with their owners is swelling too, and so are problems like biting and arguments over whether the animals’ presence is necessary.
United said it carried 76,000 emotional support animals in 2017, up nearly 77 percent from the year before. At Delta, “animal incidents” have surged 86 percent since 2016. Just this week, the Miami Herald reported that a Spirit Airlines passenger flushed her emotional support hamster down a toilet when she claimed the airline denied boarding for the critter at the gate, after earlier clearing the animal for takeoff.
Emotional support animals pose a challenge for airlines and for other businesses, which must strike a balance between accommodating patrons with disabilities and maintaining an environment that is clean and safe for everyone. Businesses must also navigate the possibility of fraud. Both service and emotional support animals fly in airplane cabins for free, and apartment complexes typically waive pet fees for animals in both categories. That means there’s a financial incentive to getting a household pet classified as emotional support.
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Dog trainers say they’ve been inundated in recent years with requests from pet owners who want their animals to receive the emotional support certification.
“I get many inappropriate calls, including people suddenly wanting their dogs to ‘become a service dog’ because they are moving to a ‘no dogs allowed’ building or want the dog to fly for free,” said Jennifer Hack, a Chicago dog trainer. “I’ve been offered money for fake paperwork.”
The Illinois attorney general’s office recommends that business owners err on the side of inclusivity in order to prevent those with actual disabilities from being denied service. Walmart, American Airlines and other major companies have been sued for allegedly preventing disabled people from bringing in service dogs. Walmart and American entered into undisclosed settlements.
Apartment complex operators are among those grappling with the growing number of emotional support animals.
Diana Pittro, who oversees management, marketing and operations for RMK Management, which runs apartment buildings in Illinois, Indiana and Minnesota, said requests for emotional support or service pets have ranged from dogs and cats to snakes and monkeys. It’s become a “quick way to avoid paying pet fees” over the last year, she said. Pet fees generally run a few hundred dollars, and some buildings also charge “pet rent,” a monthly fee that’s also waived for emotional support and service animals.
Pittro said allowing emotional support animals into apartment complexes can generate backlash from other residents who moved to a specific building or floor to avoid pets.
“I have lost good residents because of the bad behavior of an emotional support/service animal owner or pet,” she said.
Mike Mini, executive vice president of the Chicagoland Apartments Association, which represents area landlords, said that operators of rental complexes are concerned that if they question the validity of emotional support animals, they will be subject to complaints or lawsuits under fair housing regulations. It is a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act to question people about their specific disabilities.
United bars woman’s emotional support peacock from flight »
“It’s an issue that we’re definitely concerned about,” Mini said.
Federal law dictates that landlords, airlines or other businesses can ask only two questions about a support or service animal: “Is the animal required because of a disability?” and “What work or task has the dog been trained to perform?”
“It certainly has been a gray area, and from our perspective, people have been taking advantage,” he said.
Dog trainers say the pressure they are under from clients seeking support animal certifications can be great.
Hack said she has been “cussed out, yelled at and harassed” by prospective clients who want her to provide inappropriate certifications for their dogs.
‘Emotional support animals’ stink up service dog reputation »
She’s even noted on her website that she’s no longer training service dogs in an effort to limit the inquiries.
Linda Fox, the founder of Heartland Service Dogs in Mokena, says that out of the 25 or 30 requests she gets for training each week, about half are for service dogs for illegitimate purposes.
“It wastes a lot of time and can cause a lot of problems” she said.
Fox says she usually knows a customer has ulterior motives when he or she asks: “How do I get my dog to be a service dog?”
“Then I start my interrogation: Do you need the dog because you have a disability? Tell me more about the dog. What do you want the dog to do for you?” she said. “It usually just goes downhill from there.”
After that, Fox said, potential clients usually admit that they just want their dog to be able to accompany them into stores, or on a flight for free.
“I get the fact that most dogs have the ability to make you feel better, and that they can alleviate some anxiety people have,” she said. “But the fact is they haven’t been trained to do that. And even if you’ve been diagnosed with depression, it doesn’t mean it impacts your daily life in a way that you need a service dog.”
The abuse of the emotional support animal designation can be just as frustrating for those who use them for real medical issues under the recommendation of a therapist of doctor.
Jordan Conrad, a 22-year-old graduate student at Loyola University Chicago, got her emotional support dog, Leo, last April on her therapist’s recommendation after suffering from depression, anxiety and insomnia following a sexual assault. Conrad, who lives in graduate housing with two roommates, said she’s had to overcome the stigma created by rampant abuse of emotional support animal classifications. Some of her peers have also questioned why she is allowed to have a dog.
Editorial: Delta’s smart move to bar phony support animals »
Conrad said her 8-pound dachshund-Pomeranian mix goes just about everywhere with her, except for class, where only service animals are allowed.
Conrad said she has been vocal about the need for an emotional support animal because she believes there are many people who don’t understand.
“Leo is my emotional support animal, not because I needed to move somewhere and get a certification, not because I needed to travel with him, but because I actually, both mentally and physically, need him,” she wrote in a Facebook post. “Having the huge responsibility of taking care of a dog gets me up in the morning, makes me prioritize and actually makes me socialize. My anxiety is always at ease when he’s with me and I’m so much happier with him in my life.”
Heartland’s Fox said that she doesn’t expect the requests for unwarranted emotional support animals to slow despite a crackdown among airlines and the subsequent wave of publicity. United announced recently that it would join Delta Airlines in tightening rules for flying with emotional support animals.
Gerald Bockwinkel, owner of Bockwinkel’s grocery stores, agrees. He called the rise of illegitimate emotional support animals a “sore point for anybody that’s in food service.”
“It’s a violation, we could be shut down” by the health department, he said. “Yet people come in and effectively dare you to kick them out.”
Bockwinkel’s posted a lengthy sign at its Streeterville location, where it gets heavy foot traffic, aimed at cutting down on the number of people who try to bring in pets that are not service animals. But Bockwinkel said he doesn’t refuse anyone.
“If someone comes in with their support elephant, I’m going to let them in, because it’s just not worth it,” he said.
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