No doubt a psychologist can explain how prescribing a guinea pig for emotional support serves a real purpose, a medically necessary purpose, even if it defies empirical proof. And similarly, there are those who will speak in glowing terms of how a dog at their side during testimony soothes their anxiety. Others may feel the same way about a few tumblers of scotch, but Glenlivet isn’t cute and furry.
Walter Olson at Overlawyered exposes the silly side of over-emotionalism in the embrace of comfort animals under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Author Patricia Marx decided to brazen her way through New York restaurants, museums, high-end fashion shops, and other institutions with five “un-cuddly, non-nurturing animals” such as a turtle, snake, and turkey, and some therapist paperwork that was easy enough to procure.
While it served to produce an hysterically funny, as in ridiculous, tale, it also served to highlight how easily we succumb to the insanity of vagaries in the law.
Take a look around. See the St. Bernard slobbering over the shallots at Whole Foods? Isn’t that a Rottweiler sitting third row, mezzanine, at Carnegie Hall? As you will have observed, an increasing number of your neighbors have been keeping company with their pets in human-only establishments, cohabiting with them in animal-unfriendly apartment buildings and dormitories, and taking them (free!) onto airplanes—simply by claiming that the creatures are their licensed companion animals and are necessary to their mental well-being. No government agency keeps track of such figures, but in 2011 the National Service Animal Registry, a commercial enterprise that sells certificates, vests, and badges for helper animals, signed up twenty-four hundred emotional-support animals. Last year, it registered eleven thousand.
What about the mental well-being of everyone else?
The meme, your rights end where my nose begins, seems ripe for mention. The difference with comfort animals is that there are a lot of people who just like pets. My buddy Steve can’t walk past a dog without bending down, petting it, speaking to it in some peculiar baby-like patois, making himself into the cutest blithering idiot ever.
He doesn’t care. He likes dogs, so he has no problem with a dog sitting at the next table in a restaurant, and it doesn’t bother him when dogs bark all night long. “That’s what dogs do,” he explains, “when they’re lonely.” I’m sure that brings comfort to the next door neighbor. How dare that witch expect the quiet enjoyment of her home.
Indeed. So what? I’m not anti-dog, but I somehow find it remarkably easy to walk past one without turning into a fur-rubbing idiot. But that’s just me.
By removing our beloved pets from the mix, where conflicted loyalties blind us from the underlying problem, Marx gets to the heart of the matter.
The first animal I test-drove was a fifteen-pound, thirteen-inch turtle. I tethered it to a rabbit leash, to which I had stapled a cloth E.S.A. badge (purchased on Amazon), and set off for the Frick Collection.
“One, please,” I said to the woman selling tickets, who appeared not to notice the reptile writhing in my arms, even though people in line were taking photos of us with their cell phones. I petted the turtle’s feet. “Just a moment,” the woman said. “Let me get someone.”
“Oh, my God,” I heard one guard say to another. “That woman has a turtle. I’ll call security.”
“Is it a real turtle?” Guard No. 2 said to Guard No. 1. Minutes passed. A man in a uniform appeared.
“No, no, no. You can’t take in an animal,” he said.
“It’s an emotional-support animal,” I said.
“I have a letter,” I said.
“You have a letter? Let me see it,” he said, with the peremptoriness you might have found at Checkpoint Charlie.
The letter is hysterical. I would ordinarily feel badly about posting as much of someone else story here, but the rest of Marx’s article is so brutally revealing and ironic that you shouldn’t pass it up. This barely scratches the surface.
Having demonstrated the absurd mix of confusion, blind emotionalism and, well, fear of being politically incorrect, Marx asks the obvious question:
Why didn’t anybody do the sensible thing, and tell me and my turtle to get lost? The Americans with Disabilities Act allows you to ask someone with a service animal only two questions: Is the animal required because of a disability? What work or task has the animal been trained to perform? Specific questions about a person’s disability are off limits, and, as I mentioned, people are baffled by the distinction between service animals and emotional-support animals.
When a blind person comes in with a seeing eye dog, most of us are capable of grasping why the law permits this. In the scheme of balancing the ability of a blind person to function versus whatever displeasure comes of having a dog in the room, function wins. Service animals serve such a function, and they are allowed for that reason.
Emotional-support animals are a horse of a different color (sorry, couldn’t help myself). The ADA does not, in fact, protect the right of individuals to bring their comfort critters with them wherever they go. While service animals are covered, emotional-support animals do not meet the definition, and refusal to allow a woman and her beloved alpaca in will not result in a violation of the ADA.
But people, storeowners, restaurateurs, don’t carry around or distribute to every employee a pocket copy of the ADA for handy reference. Given the number of laws and regulations, on every level, imposed on us, it’s not really feasible to expect the guard at the gate, the receptionist at the front desk, to be bold enough to toss the comfort-snake out on its ear (sorry, again couldn’t help myself). And few businesses want to gain viral publicity by being the one that hates the disabled so much that it turns away a sympathetic neurotic with her beloved turkey.
Ironically, those who take comfort in their emotional-support animals will see this challenge to their “right” to much-needed care and comfort as hatred and bullying, since they feel entitled to do whatever they believe helps them and brings them the comfort to which they’re due. And Marx’s snark aside, why shouldn’t a turtle be dear to a person’s heart? Why do you hate the turtles, you turtle hater? What about the turtles?