At Volokh Conspiracy, David Post writes about the sudden appearance of dogs on planes.
I have taken a number of airplane trips over the past month or so, and I noticed, on each of the flights I took, that there were dogs on board — not in carriers, but sitting on the laps, or in the arms, of their owners. It struck me as odd, and now, thanks to an interesting and informative article by Karen Elliott and Rebecca Lightle in The Washington Post a few weeks ago, I have an idea about what’s going on.
How he was unaware until a few weeks ago, or later if he just read the old post, of the comfort critter phenomenon is a question that only he can answer. It’s not like it hasn’t been mentioned before. But the “sudden” pervasiveness of comfort animals on planes gives rise to an epiphany.
As Elliott and Lightle explain, the Americans With Disabilities Act requires places of public accommodation such as restaurants and transportation carriers to allow service animals — which can be dogs or, oddly enough, “miniature horses” — that assist people with disabilities.
That seems fair enough (though the “miniature horses” part seems a little peculiar). The problem, though, is in determining whether any particular animal qualifies as a service animal — and in doing so without running afoul of the ADA’s restrictions on the questions concerning disabilities that the ADA also imposes.
Does it “seem fair enough”? For many years, we accepted the idea of “seeing eye dogs” because it was scientifically valid and made complete sense. We could see (even though its user could not) how these dogs enabled the sight impaired to function in society. It was a wonderful thing. So like so many good ideas, we kept the rubric and forgot the rationale.
So how should a business assess whether a customer’s dog is a service animal? Federal regulations instruct that if it is readily apparent that a dog is aiding a person with a disability — for example, by leading a person who is blind — then staff members should simply allow the dog in as a service animal. But if the dog’s function is not apparent, then the ADA permits only two types of inquiries. First: “Is this dog required because of a disability?” And second: “What specific assistive task or tasks has the dog been trained to perform?”
The questions seem legit, but questions are only half the battle.
Unlike places of public accommodation governed solely by the ADA, commercial airlines must accept ID cards, other documentation, apparel or “credible verbal assurances” as evidence that a service animal is legitimate (although an airline may prohibit “unusual” service animals such as reptiles, rodents or spiders). Further, if a passenger with a disability produces appropriate documentation from a licensed mental health professional, the ACAA requires airlines to accommodate emotional-support animals that would not be protected by the ADA.
On the bright side, you might be safe from that comfort rat. On the dark side, a “credible verbal assurance” does the trick. Even more concrete is “appropriate documentation from a licenses mental health professional.” So if someone has a letter written in crayon by Suzy Shrink, Ph.D., what’s a stew to do? How would a flight attendant know that her doctorate was in the psychology of intersectional deviant sexual studies? Or worse yet, Suzy turns out to exist only in the fertile imagination of the doggy’s mommy.
David sees an issue.
Not surprisingly, many people are gaming the regulations, claiming “service animal” status for Fido just as a way of getting around restrictions on dogs in restaurants, apartment buildings, etc.
How cynical. What would make someone take the misanthrope path to believing that some fliers will use this to keep Fido with them when they want to, or beat the airlines out of their “pets cost extra” fee. And if you have the misfortune of sitting next to such a person, you can’t merely shout, “Out, damn Spot!”
Perhaps this isn’t just a backend problem of people gaming the system, but a system that rewards inane fragility, claims of need that society has somehow overcome up until the Age of Feelz took over, and which gives rise to untenable situations? The integrity of the policy choice of allowing blind people to use seeing eye dogs was acceptable because the disability was objectively clear, and we trusted, without our trust being abused, the dogs to truly be service dogs.
You’re sad and need that comfort snake? Sorry if I can’t feel your pain. Much as I like puppies as well as any football fan, being a snowflake is not a disability.