When Any Alpaca Will Do

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?

23 comments on “When Any Alpaca Will Do

  1. william doriss

    “Chronicling the high cost of our legal system.” I like that.
    Overlawyered, but underrepresented. Ha.

  2. David

    Surely you mean “why shouldn’t a turtle be deer to a person’s hart?” Sorry, I’ll let myself out.

  3. Pingback: It's an emotional-support alpaca, so let us in - Overlawyered

  4. bill

    Even though omst people aren’t crazy or entitled enough (the hassle of keeping a pet with you is no small hassle) to do this will be the hopeful saving grace. B/c if people start doing it to be cool or convince themselves they need to, it won’t be long before a one comfort animal starts eating another one which will be traumatizing as hell for at least one person in the crowd and allergies , religious sensibilities and all sorts of other stuff will come into play. And I know non-lawyers only make fools of themselves when they opine on law, but when someone’s pet pitbull eats Mr Wiggles and the kid holding him, someone will figure out some vicarious liability claim.

  5. the other alan

    Sorry, but I cannot abide Ms. Marx’s behavior or conclusions. She constructed a number of elaborate lies to put people in uncomfortable situations to see how they would react. Tom Green got America tired of this shtick more than 10 years ago. The taxi driver was manipulated into doing something he believed was illegal to help someone he thought was in need. Hilarious!
    “Why didn’t anyone do the sensible thing and tell me to get lost?” The answer is obvious and Ms. Marx knew it before she started this nonsense. When encountering a stranger, most people do not assume the person has gone to elaborate lengths to concoct a story that she is emotionally attached to her pet. After all, why would anyone make up such a story unless they were crazy or agitating for attention? This, combined with the threat of a six-figure lawsuit, makes the decision to allow her to bring her pets with her a forgone conclusion.
    Yes, the ADA has made people afraid and confused about dealing with people with disabilties. Film at 11!

      1. st

        Faked handicapped parking stickers are so 20th-century. In Las Vegas more than one cab driver has offered perfectly ambulatory me an evening’s rental of a wheelchair to get great seats to a sold-out show. Electric wheelchairs are extra. Now I know I can take my ESA beehive with me for no extra charge. Congress creates laws, the market responds with exploits, or opportunities, depending on where you sit.

  6. Fubar

    When one enters the courtroom for battle’s sake,
    Full support takes an animal that’ll shake
    Opponents and foes
    From their nose to their toes.
    For a service beast, bring a big rattlesnake!

  7. Richard G. Kopf


    True story:

    Several years ago, I tried a criminal case. The spouse of the defendant was a relatively important fact witness. The spouse claimed to be an American Indian. Ethnicity was somewhat relevant. However, the spouse looked like a white person. The spouse also claimed to suffer from a seizure disorder that required the spouse to hold two very small and cute dogs to avoid anxiety that could trigger a seizure. Each little dog had a little cloth “jacket” covering the dog’s midsection. The dogs were quiet and well behaved.

    When I learned that the spouse wanted to have the dogs sit on the spouse’s lap in the witness box I threw a fit. I don’t remember why but I ultimately relented and let the spouse testify with the pups on the lap. The defendant was convicted despite the spouse’s testimony and the presence of the darling little dogs in the witness box.

    What is my conclusion from this true life experience? “Bacon is to people as butts are to dogs.” Janet Fang, Why Do Dogs Like To Smell Butts So Much? IFL Science (July 29, 2014).

    All the best.


      1. John Barleycorn

        You are getting to old to pull off outliers esteemed one.

        Rejoice in the absurd clouding of interpretation.

        It has been there all along.

        Mount your fucking Alpaca and ride!

  8. Tony

    As additional public spaces provide for ESAs, it will not be long until these concepts come into stark conflict. Who wins, for example, when a wealthy neurotic dining at a $300-per-plate restaurant comes in with her cat (replete with bow and bell no doubt) and the diner the next table over has a severe cat dander allergy? Or at a workplace where an employee has such an allergy and a person comes in with their dog/reptile and demands service? In San Francisco Superior, the court already has an explicit policy allowing ESAs (I was there for a hearing and opposing counsel entered with his secretary, who was holding little Fifi, a Pomeranian. I whispered to my co-counsel – oh so they just let anyone bring their dogs in here now (sarcastically), and he replied, oh yeah, that’s Attorney X – he’s certifiable – and Fifi’s his ESA.) Although counsel did not go to counsel table with Fifi, I see no reason why future voir dires (they are so stressful, you know) or cross-examinations cannot be conducted with little Fifi in tow. California’s anti-discrimination laws are potentially broad enough to establish this as a protected right once the issue is challenged.

    Great, timely post.

  9. LTMG

    My wife and I will register ourselves to be the other’s support critter. My wife will take me to the ladies room, and I’ll take her to the mens room and to The Home Depot. When the time comes and I’m feeling suicidal, I’ll find a young and curvaceous woman to also be a registered support animal, and will bring her home with me to, ahem, keep my feet warm at night.

  10. Wheeze the People™

    If you (the figurative you — not SHG, necessarily) really feel the need for a comfort animal, buy a gerbil and house him (the gerbil, not SHG, necessarily) in the body cavity of your choice. That way, you (the you requiring comfort, not SHG, necessarily) avoid the paperwork, the potential hassles, all while providing continuous emotional comfort . . . Problem solved!! . . .

        1. SHG Post author

          Certificate? Uh, sure. Whatever. Florescent pink vest, not so much. But you already have one, so what’s the big deal?

    1. SHG Post author

      We have a cat. It’s named cat. It lives outside. I’ve never touched it, though it rubs up against me constantly. I find that creepy.

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