This story begins with progress, in the form of a 1986 law forbidding discrimination against handicapped air travelers. The law made sure that physically disabled people could travel with service animals. It also rightly applied to nonphysical disabilities. Some autistic children, for example, function better with a trained dog.You can buy the "Premium ESA Kit" at the top of the post for $99.95, including the certificate and the official-looking id card.
The trouble started when pet owners realized that they could game the system, because airlines did not require much proof of medical need. By claiming one, people could bring an animal on board without putting it in a carry-on bag and without paying a fee that typically runs $125.
It’s true that some people honestly believe they have an emotional condition that an animal solves. But they are often confusing their preferences with actual medical needs. As a recent front-page story in The Washington Post dryly put it, the effectiveness of emotional-support animals “is poorly substantiated through studies but widely embraced by the public.”
Once animals became more common on planes, the trend fed on itself. Pet owners figured that if other people were cheating the system, they might as well too. A cottage industry sprung up in service of low-level fraud. For $30 on Amazon, you can buy a bright-red dog vest that reads, EMOTIONAL SUPPORT. With a quick web search, you can find a therapist to diagnose you long-distance. Fill out a form, and suddenly you’re certified as having an illness that requires animal attention.
All the while, people told themselves they weren’t doing anything wrong. (How often have you heard a version of, “My pet is friendly and harmless”?) But people weren’t thinking about the collective cost of their actions — about the many children afraid of sitting next to a dog, about travelers with serious allergies, about flight attendants charged with keeping cabins safe and, most of all, about truly disabled travelers.
The travelers who complain loudest about all these emotional support animals are blind people with seeing-eye dogs, who think it cheapens their own legitimate needs, plus there have been incidents in which untrained animals attack seeing-eye dogs.
I find myself ambivalent. On the one hand, who cares if people scared of flying carry their dogs on planes? Lighten up already.
On the other, this confirms the vision of America as a nation of narcissistic weaklings who don't give a damn for anything but our own feelings and need constant emotional support because we can't stand on our own. Plus, flying is already unpleasant enough without some stranger's dog getting hair in your face.
I guess I don't care much either way, but something about this seems very America right now to me.