Sorting out all the rights; Some 'service' animals are unwelcome on airplanes.
When John C. Moon heard about the Connecticut woman who was escorted from a US Airways plane last week along with her pet pig, the first thing that came to his mind was: "Here we go again.''
Under U.S. Department of Transportation guidelines, the pig was permitted to travel in the cabin of the plane with its owner because it was presented to be an "emotional support animal.'' Such an animal is not considered a pet, but a necessity to provide therapeutic support to a person with mental or emotional health issues through affection and companionship.
But airlines can deny the animal a place in the cabin if it causes a significant disruption in the cabin service or poses a direct threat to the health or safety of others on the plane.
Twenty-nine-year-old Rachel Boerner of Wallingford, Connecticut, and her 80-pound pot-bellied pig were escorted off the plane before it took off after the pig allegedly began squealing uncontrollably and defecated on the plane floor.
"I think she was trying to scam the system,'' said Mr. Moon, director of client programs and community engagement at Princeton-based National Education for Assistance Dog Services, also known as Dogs for Deaf and Disabled Americans. "I don't know this woman, her needs or concerns at all ... I know that everyone is not a dog person, but to try to take a pig or a miniature horse or a snake on a plane for your personal emotional support tends to violate the rights of those around you.''
The U.S. Department of Transportation in 1990 implemented the Air Carrier Access Act, regulating service animals in air transportation. At the time, the animals were mostly guide dogs or hearing assistance dogs. Based on input from airline carriers and disability groups, the term "service animals'' was expanded in 2003 to include animals that provide emotional support. In 2008, the regulation was amended to permit airlines to limit use of emotional support animals to passengers with a diagnosed mental or emotional disorder. The rule was also extended to include foreign airline flights to or from the U.S. But, foreign carriers are only required to carry dogs that are for emotional support and other disability assistance.
According to the DOT regulation, airlines are not required to accommodate unusual service animals such as snakes and other reptiles, ferrets, rodents and spiders because they can pose safety or public health concerns. But other unusual animals, including pigs, miniature horses and monkeys, should be evaluated on an individual basis.
The regulation includes guidelines to assist airline personnel and disabled individuals to recognize whether an animal is a service animal or just a pet because: "Passengers may claim that their animals are service animals at times to get around airline policies that restrict the carriage of pets,'' according to the ACAA.
Unlike other service animals, those used for emotional or psychiatric support are not required to have any specific training. Airlines are allowed to require documentation not more than one year old from a licensed mental health professional on his or her letterhead stating the passenger has a mental health- related disability and that the accompaniment of the animal is necessary to assist the passenger with the disability.
But there are numerous websites where a person can pay to have a licensed psychotherapist for a telephone consultation in order to get a letter stating that their animal is needed for emotional support.
"Faking a pet as an assistance dog to get it on the plane (in the cabin) to me is breaking the law,'' said Mr. Moon with NEADS. "But people try to game the system by saying, 'I really need this emotional support dog or pig or horse.' ''
Marilyn R. Perlman, a psychotherapist in Worcester, said it's interesting how animals can provide a level of comfort and support. But she has never heard of a pig as an emotional support animal. She said she wrote a letter last year to support a woman to carry her small dog on a flight to Florida. The woman has an anxiety disorder and the dog provided relief from the anxiety that flying presented, she said.
"A pig would be kind of out of the box. Not to say it wouldn't be valid, but I don't know anyone who has had a pig or an animal not as conventional as a dog or cat.''
Charlene F. Goren, a psychotherapist with the MultiCultural Wellness Center in Worcester, said she has written letters confirming an animal is needed for a patient's emotional support and she has also refused to write them. She said at her former employment, she usually worked with a person's primary care physician to determine if an animal was truly for emotional support.
One letter she wrote was for a 59-year-old woman from the Orange area who has bipolar disorder and anxiety. "She was uncomfortable leaving her home without her pet, a small dog. She carried it in her purse,'' said Ms. Goren. "She took it with her everywhere, to the doctor's office, the courthouse, on buses, shopping.''
She refused to write a letter for a Turners Fall woman who claimed her two pit bulls were service animals after one of the dogs bit someone and she was facing eviction from public housing.
Ms. Goren said the woman had multiple emotional issues and she felt her dogs protected her. But the dogs were not trained and the owner lacked control of the animals. They also were not up-to-date on their immunizations, which, she said, should be a requirement for any service animal.
Ms. Goren said emotional support animals also should have a required standard of training, perhaps provided through the Americans with Disabilities Act.
"The problem with training is people who get comfort dogs usually are mentally ill or disabled and can't afford the training,'' she said. "If you're a dog owner and your dog goes to obedience school, it's very costly. People who are mentally ill or medically disabled can't afford those things.''
Mr. Moon said there are inconsistencies with the different federal laws that regulate emotional and other service animals. Unlike the ACCA, the Americans with Disabilities Act, a civil rights law to protect the rights of people with disabilities, only recognizes dogs as service animals and indicates the type of training they receive related to tasks to benefit a disabled person. But dogs with the sole purpose of providing emotional support are not included. The ADA does include dogs that are trained to calm someone with post-traumatic stress disorder during an anxiety attack.
"The laws, which you think would be able to point us in one direction or the other, are confusing,'' he said. "The airlines, hotels, restaurants ... are grappling with these issues because more and more people are using assistance animals in general to help them navigate life. The ambiguity, I think, helps wrongdoers, not people who are genuinely using an assistance (animal) for legitimate purposes.''
Caitlin Harvey, a spokeswoman with the federal DOT, said airlines have been advised that they may decline to accept the documentation as proof of a service animal if "they have a reasonable basis for concluding that a passenger is not a qualified individual with a disability or that the animal that the passenger is traveling with is not a service animal, including emotional service animals and psychiatric service animals, or that the documentation being presented by the passenger is not legitimate.''
Contact Elaine Thompson at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @EThompsonTG