News stories abound of airline passengers traveling with all sorts of unusual animals under the premise that their non-human companions provide necessary emotional support, such as this one about a bereaved widow who flew with her turkey to San Francisco, where she would be spreading her late husband’s ashes:
A Seattle woman who was flying to San Francisco to spread her husband’s ashes took her 25-pound pet turkey on the flight for emotional support. Jodie Smalley, 34, says her turkey, Easter, has been there for her since her husband passed away from cancer three months ago. She had a custom diaper made for Easter for their flight, and she has all the necessary documents that certify the turkey is a legitimate emotional support animal. “Hearing about a turkey on a plane sounds ridiculous,” she said. “But people have no idea what I’ve been through.”
While service animals such as seeing-eye dogs have a long history and are familiar to nearly everyone, emotional support animals are a much newer phenomenon. Established law provides for the accommodation of service animals and emotional support animals in housing and other public facilities, but headlines start rolling off the presses when the human half of the pair attempts to travel on an airplane with a non-standard species such as a miniature horse, pig, or monkey.
Pot-bellied pigs are often favored as emotional support animals by those who are allergic to dogs. However, pigs don’t always travel well, as illustrated in several news stories of recent years: in November 2014, for instance, a woman was escorted off of a USA Airways flight in Connecticut because her 70-pound pot-bellied pig was squealing uncontrollably, “three times louder than a child,” and defecated in the airplane aisle.
In a 2001 incident (again on a USA Airways flight), the passenger informed the airline that her pig was “about a hundred pounds,” but staff were taken aback when the pig arrived and it proved to be closer to 300 pounds. The two women (the pig-owner was traveling with a friend) were assigned bulkhead seats in first class to provide as much space as possible, but they were still forced to plant their feet on the bulkhead for the duration of the six-hour flight to allow adequate space for their porcine companion. Although the pig was calm during the flight, it became frantic upon deplaning, squealing, urinating, and defecating in the close confines of the galley in a frenzied effort to get off the airplane after landing.
In May 2003, blind passenger Dan Shaw traveled from Boston to Chicago with his seeing-eye miniature horse, Cuddles, to appear on an episode of Oprah Winfrey’s talk show. Shaw chose a miniature horse instead of a dog for his guide animal because horses have much longer lifespans than dogs, and he was afraid of getting emotionally attached to a dog who might have a relatively short life. Shaw purchased a first-class ticket for his horse because, at two feet high and 70 pounds in weight, Cuddles wouldn’t have fit under the seat in front of him in coach. Although American Airlines staff initially debated requiring that Cuddles wear a diaper, they relented when they were assured that Cuddles was housebroken and decided to forego the diaper requirement for the two-hour flight. That turned out to be an unfortunate decision, because Cuddles defecated on the carpet in front of the bulkhead. The fact that the flight’s take-off was delayed 45 minutes may have contributed to Cuddles’ discomfort.
We didn’t find any instances of service monkeys being involved in disruptive incidents aboard airplanes, but perhaps that is because most service monkeys are six to ten pound Capuchins who can fit in a carrier under the seat in front of the passenger, just as more typical pets do.
With incidents like these appearing in the news, and consumers experiencing the ever-closer confines of coach seating, air travel with unusual animals immediately grabs the public’s attention. In particular, air passengers have taken umbrage at other flyers who are seemingly trying to “game the system” and declare their household pets to be emotional support animals to get their animals on-board for free.
In 1986, Congress passed the Air Carrier Access Act, a law intended (in part) to ensure that service animals would be allowed to fly on planes and could not be booted off simply because other passengers object to their presence. Service animals must be under the control of their owners (physically by a leash or cage, or verbally through commands), cannot roam around the cabin, and — contrary to the accidents described in the news stories mentioned above — must be trained not to eliminate on airplanes. For flights of longer than eight hours, the owners must provide written plans for clean disposal of waste.
Although the emergency exit rows with their expanded legroom might seem like a logical place to put a dog or other service animal, those rows must be kept clear at all times for emergencies, so service animals usually end up in the bulkhead rows if they are too large to fit under a seat. Monkeys are the only species permitted by the FAA to travel on a seat instead of the floor (although we’ve read of celebrities purchasing first-class seats for their pet pooches).
Airlines, thankfully, are allowed to prohibit passage to unusual service animals such as snakes, rodents, ferrets, and spiders. They can also prohibit farm poultry, but Easter — the widow’s turkey mentioned at the beginning of this article — had been classified as a domesticated bird by Delta Airlines and was thus allowed to fly. (It should be noted that Easter flew without incident: he wore a diaper and reportedly “didn’t make a sound.”)
There’s a legal distinction between service animals and emotional support animals. Service animals, usually dogs, are individually trained to assist their owners with disabilities. These include the well-known Seeing Eye Dogs, Hearing Dogs, Psychiatric Service Dogs, Seizure Response Dogs, and dogs who are trained to perform such tasks as pulling a wheelchair, picking up items that have been dropped, reminding a person to take medication, alerting their person to a sound, and so on. Service animals also occasionally include miniature horses such as Cuddles.
Emotional Support Animals (ESA), also known as Comfort Animals, are supposed to be used as part of an emotional therapeutic treatment plan. They do not have specific training to provide tasks on behalf of their humans and are not considered service animals under the American Disabilities Act. They may provide companionship, relieve loneliness, and sometimes help with depression, anxiety, or other phobias. There is no national standardized certification to document the qualifications of an emotional support animal.
Some pet owners have been accused of falsely claiming that their household pet is an emotional support animal to travel for free (since the Air Carrier Access Act prohibits the airlines from charging a fee for such animals) or to get around the limitations that airlines typically impose on the number of pets allowed to travel per cabin.
Legally, getting an ESA on an airplane requires documentation from a mental health provider verifying the emotional benefit of the animal. The letter should be less than one year old, prescribe or endorse the animal as an ESA offering benefits for a particular mental disability, and the emotional/mental diagnosis must comply with the current edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V). In practice, however, it is not difficult to find mental health providers who will provide supportive letters.
In addition, numerous websites exist that promise to “certify” an owner’s pet as an emotional support animal, charging between $59 and $200 to provide the owner with an ID vest and a certificate — and sometimes the necessary mental health letters as well. While researching this story, we easily found websites that promised “Any dog may qualify,” “Take your pet everywhere. Instant Approval!”, and “It’s easy to register your pet as an emotional support animal!”
Two Today investigative writers discovered first-hand the ease with which they could travel with their animals. Jeff Rossen filled out a questionnaire on a ESA web site and was sent an official letter from a mental health professional without ever seeing or speaking to her. He subsequently took two flights with his dog sitting in his lap, and no one from the airlines even asked to see the letter. His colleague, Lindsey Bomnin, received certification from the same web site for a borrowed pot-bellied pig, then took two flights with the pig on her lap.
Although obtaining certification for a household pet may seem like a nifty way of avoiding the airlines’ pet fares — or sticking it to an industry which seems to find ever-more-numerous ways of nickel-and-diming their customers — faking a disability ultimately ends up hurting those who really do need their emotional support animals. In addition, claiming that a large and unruly animal is an ESA (like that 300-pound pig) presents a true safety hazard to passengers and crew alike if the animal panics or goes on a rampage.
This claim has been rated “mostly true” because although passengers with emotional disabilities can travel with dogs or other support animals such as monkeys, miniature horses, or pigs, they are required to provide documentation from a mental health professional in order to do so (even if sometimes airlines accept nothing more than a simple verbal claim in allowing passage for a pet). To avoid the Wild West atmosphere of on-line certification and unruly animals being brought aboard, it seems that a national and standardized system of certification would be beneficial for all involved.