Dogs, cats, squirrels, pigs, miniature horses, ducks, peacocks and, yes, even boa constrictors and spiders. All of these creatures have achieved their 15 minutes of fame as emotional support animals brought—or attempted to be brought—on airplanes. Is it a violation of federal law to deny them in the main cabin? Are they really service animals or pets in disguise?
Those are the questions Airlines for America (A4A), a trade association, and over 80 other organizations—including animal experts, veterans groups, disability groups, flight attendant representatives and airline representatives—want the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) to decide once and for all.
The DOT issued this Final Statement of Enforcement Priorities Regarding Service Animals stating that airlines will not be "subject to enforcement action if they deny transport to snakes, other reptiles, ferrets, rodents, and spiders."The DOT regulates the transportation of service animals under the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) and regulation 14 CFR Part 382.
However, the coalition led by industry and animal groups wants it definitively spelled out: They want one, national definition of "service animal" that aligns with federal law to limit the harm caused by untrained emotional support animals on planes.
That rule could come any day now.
“These incidents have ranged from mauling and biting to urinating and defecating.”
From 2016 to 2018, the number of emotional support animals flying in the main airplane cabin almost doubled to more than a million, per A4A. The more animals, unfortunately the more incidents.
“These incidents have ranged from mauling and biting to urinating and defecating—all unacceptable behaviors on an airplane,” the coalition wrote to Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao. “This misbehavior not only threatens the health and safety of our passengers and crew, but also passengers with disabilities traveling with legitimate service animals.”
To be clear, the coalition very much wants the right of passengers to travel with service animals protected.
Your "support kangaroo" (go ahead, google it), however, might not be a permissible travel companion under the new rule.
“Any Tom, Dick or Harry can start a service dog association.”
There are some 500,000 service animals, mostly dogs—but cats and miniature horses are recognized as such by the ADA—in use in the United States.
The Americans With Disabilities Act distinguishes between service and emotional support, therapy, comfort, or companion animals: “These terms are used to describe animals that provide comfort just by being with a person. Because they have not been trained to perform a specific job or task, they do not qualify as service animals under the ADA.”
Training is key, stresses Lori Stephenson, director of Texas-based Patriot Paws, which provides trained service dogs for veterans in need all over the United States since 2006.
“There is no standard or accreditation required [by the ADA],” said Stephenson. “Needing an animal for comfort is very different from needing one to function.”
Stephenson’s dogs, mostly labradors and golden retrievers, go through 18 months to 3 years of training (depending on what the veterans need) before they find their homes. And they’re also accredited by Assistant Dogs International. This group, according to Stephenson, sets the standards for guide dogs and service dogs for any organization trying to "do it right."
While she isn’t fond of the piles of paperwork involved in accrediting each dog, she would be happy to see the DOT adopt an accreditation standard.
“Any Tom, Dick or Harry can start a service dog association, it doesn’t mean you’re going to get a quality service dogs. There are all kinds of scams.
“You can go online now for $129 and buy a vest for your dog and say he’s a service dog. We’re hoping the DOT will require paperwork and accreditation.”
Indeed, anyone can go online and register a pet (from rat to fish to lizard and more) as a “therapy animal” for anywhere from $54 to $150. Sites will even provide you with help in getting a prescription from a licensed therapist—no disability required.
This is what Stephenson and the other organizations wish to stop. Who wants to sit on a plane with an untrained dog or, worse yet, a screeching peacock?
“In the industry, you hear about problems some are having with ‘service animals’ onboard."
Peter Scherrer, airport manager of Westchester Airport, is happy to report that while Westchester Airport has seen its share of animals—dogs, by and large—they’ve never had a problem: no incidents and no injuries.
“From the terminal point of view,” said Scherrer, “we require people with any animal be able to control the animal. A dog has to be on leash.”
The airport even has a place for animals to relieve themselves set up outside the terminal building.
Nevertheless, Scherrer agreed that there is wide industry concern over what qualifies as a service animal and hears stories of people abusing the status of “comfort animal.”
“People who really need service animals are being overshadowed by those abusing the opportunity” said Scherrer. “In the industry, you hear about problems some are having with ‘service animals’ onboard.
“The only strange thing we had was once a child tried to bring a lizard onboard under his shirt,” recalled Scherrer. “We had to hold the lizard until someone came to pick him up.”