Tom Donnelly writes on veterinary matters in the USA.
In June, a miniature Yorkshire terrier caused a fuss at a fancy Manhattan restaurant. From a Google review of Altesi Ristorante: “Lunch was ruined because Ivana Trump sat next to us with her dog which she even let climb to the table. I told her no dogs allowed but she lied that hers was a service dog.” Internet discussions said the owner of Altesi, Paolo Alavian, defended Trump. “She walked into the restaurant and she showed the emotional-support card,” he said. “Basically, people with the card are allowed to bring their dogs into the restaurant. This is the law.”
Signor Alavian is mistaken: it’s not the law.
To digress briefly, several years ago in this column, I wrote about the growing trend of people with mental illnesses relying on what are known as therapy, comfort or “emotional support” animals (ESAs) to stem the symptoms of their illness. In New York genuine individuals were challenging landlords in court over rules that did not allow pets in rental apartments. However, such situations set two rights in conflict – the renter’s right to cope with a medical condition and the landlords’ right to control and maintain their property. The New York trend has become a nation-wide trend as illustrated by a recent three-year legal battle in Washington state that involved the federal government, Scrappee Anne, a miniature schnauzer, and her owner Diana Alton a 65-year-old woman who has post-traumatic stress disorder, clinical depression and cannot work. Alton’s landlords required her to pay a $1,000 pet deposit for her apartment. In November 2014 the landlords, Linda and Bert Barber, after incurring $175,000 in legal fees fighting Alton and the U.S. Department of House and Urban Development (HUD), which represented her, agreed to pay a $25,000 settlement to Alton and the government just to end it all.
The confusing patchwork of state and federal laws makes landlords and other businesses vulnerable to lawsuits if they impose restrictions on ESAs. Many people are also confused by the distinction between service animals and ESAs. Contrary to what many business managers think, having an ESA card merely means that one’s pet is registered in a database of animals whose owners have paid anywhere from seventy to two hundred dollars to one of several organisations, none of which are recognised by the government. Coming back to Ivana, even with a card, it is against the law in New York City and a violation of the city’s health code to take an animal into a restaurant. Nor does an ESA card entitle you to bring your pet into a hotel, store, taxi, train, or park.
No such restrictions apply to service dogs, which, like Secret Service agents are allowed to go anywhere. In contrast to an ESA, a service dog is trained to perform specific tasks, such as pulling a wheelchair and responding to seizures. The Internal Revenue Service classifies these dogs as a deductible medical expense. An ESA is defined by the government as an untrained companion of any species that provides solace to someone with a disability, such as anxiety or depression. The rights of anyone who has such an animal are laid out in two laws. The Fair Housing Act says that you and your ESA can live in housing that prohibits pets. The Air Carrier Access Act entitles you to fly with your ESA at no extra charge, although airlines typically require the animal to stay on your lap or under the seat—this rules out emotional-support rhinoceroses. Both acts stipulate that you must have a corroborating letter from a health professional. Service animals have special training and are allowed in businesses and public buildings, though state law allows only service dog and small service horses in restaurants, bars and grocery stores. Service animals do not need identification or certification but do need to be harnessed, leashed or tethered unless that interferes with a person’s individual disability or the animal’s work.
A business owner can ask whether the animal is a service animal and what disability-related task it serves, but they cannot ask a person about his or her specific disability. Fortunately for animal-lovers who wish to abuse the law, there is a lot of confusion about just who and what is allowed where. If you ask one too many questions, you’re in legal trouble for violating the Americans with Disabilities Act and could face fines of up to a hundred thousand dollars. But, if you ask one too few questions, you’re probably not in trouble, and at worst will be given a slap on the wrist.”
There are no state or federal guidelines for prescribing comfort or emotional support animals, leaving doctors to make the determination. The benefits of therapy animals are well documented, and health professionals generally write a letter for their patient that states the client suffers from a mental disorder and would benefit from being allowed to have the therapy animal live with them. Some doctors even request that any special housing fees be waived if possible.
The lack of oversight has led to an online industry where people can purchase service animal vests and get their animal certified or registered as a comfort animal. Enter “emotional-support animal” into Google and take your pick among hundreds of willing professionals with whom to visit for a consultation. Through a site called ESA Registration of America, pet owners are put in touch with willing clinical social worker over the country who, at a cost of a hundred and forty dollars, will evaluate you over the phone to discuss the role of the comfort animal in your animal. If talking seems old-fashioned, you can consult thedogtor.net where getting an ESA certified is “only a mouse-click away.” You fill out a seventy-four-question medical exam online and receive your paperwork within two days, for just a hundred and ninety dollars.
The restaurant, airline and other industries worry that some people are abusing the system. No government agency keeps track of such figures, but in 2011 the National Service Animal Registry, a commercial enterprise that for sixty-five dollars sells certificates, vests, and badges for helper animals, signed up twenty-four hundred emotional-support animals. In 2013, it registered eleven thousand.
Peter Singer, the Australian philosopher and author of “Animal Rights” takes a dim view of the emotional-support-animal trend. “Animals can get as depressed as people do,” he said, so “there is sometimes an issue about how well people with mental illnesses can look after their animals.” And he continues “If it’s really so difficult for you to be without your animal, maybe you don’t need to go to that restaurant or to the Frick Museum.”
Corey Hudson, the CEO of Canine Companions for Independence, a nonprofit provider of trained assistance animals, has “declared war on fake assistance dogs.” Earlier this year, his organisation submitted a petition, which has now been signed by twenty-eight thousand people, to the Department of Justice, requesting that it consider setting up a registration—“like the Department of Motor Vehicles”—to test and certify assistance dogs and to regulate the sale of identification vests, badges, and so forth. “They responded that they think the law is adequate.”