Daphne Bramham: Before planes become Noah's ark, some regulation is needed

Credit to Author: Daphne Bramham| Date: Fri, 31 Jan 2020 01:15:21 +0000

Images of a “comfort turkey,” a duck with shoes and a kangaroo on airline flights have all gone viral on the internet. So, too, did the photo of a pheasant at Newark airport and a story about Wally, an emotional support alligator.

Beyond that, who hasn’t heard a story or two about people circumventing no-pet rules with therapists’ letters bought online along with a cute little coats for their dogs emblazoned with “emotional support animal” or ESA.

ESAs are not like service dogs. Service dogs are specially trained to do a wide range of tasks, such as providing assistance to people who are blind and acting as an early alert system to people with epilepsy.

The fact is there’s no agreed-upon definition of emotional support animals, which is why there’s a Noah’s ark of animals queuing for flights alongside their people.

Westjet has felt it necessary to spell out on its website what animals are banned from flying in the passenger cabin. The list is both bizarre and strangely delightful (unless they were to show up in the seat next to me). It includes: animals with tusks, horns, or hoofs, amphibians, ferrets, goats, hedgehogs, reptiles, rodents, snakes, spiders and sugar gliders (a nocturnal gliding possum).

Air Canada has kept it simple: Service dogs only.

But who qualifies for an ESA, what kind of animal is acceptable and what training it needs is so opaque that the Canadian Transportation Authority is doing a public consultation to see whether more or better regulations are required. Anyone who wants to voice an opinion has until Feb. 7 to send email to consultations@otc-cta.gc.ca.

Meantime, the U.S. Department of Transport is proposing to restrict flying to service dogs with specialized training who help people with disabilities, after receiving 3,065 complaints from passengers in 2018 (up from 719 in 2013) about animals defecting, urinating and biting on flights.

“An ESA is an example of a well-intended idea that has metastasized and developed into a world of nonsense,” according to Jeffrey Younggren, a forensic psychologist and clinical professor at the University of New Mexico’s department of psychiatry and behavioural sciences.

He was lead author on a 2019 paper published by the American Psychological Association that looked at the ethical challenges of certifying emotional support animals.

Among their recommendations was more research on effects of ESAs on patients, which echoed a 2018 British review of studies on emotional support animals published by BMC Psychiatry that found quantitative evidence relating to the benefits of pets to be mixed and in need of further study.

Younggren and his colleagues said before prescribing ESAs, therapists must not only diagnose the person as psychologically disabled with significant impairment in functioning, but certify that the animals are trained and their presence helps the condition.

That means, Younggren wrote, “You have to see the person with the animal.”

But online there’s none of that. One company’s website says: “If you live in Alberta, Ontario, British Columbia or Newfoundland and Labrador, you can get your ESA Letter from the comfort of your Home for Less than USD 1/Day!”

After a quick, click-through questionnaire about how often you’ve felt sad, angry, depressed, frightened, paranoid or suicidal in the last couple of weeks, a phone conversation with a therapist … and, of course, paying the money … then, you and your pet are good to go.

To make it more official looking, the company also offers a choice of four different styles of dog coats in a range of fabrics for your ‘certified’ ESA dog.

For more choices, there’s Amazon where you get everything from ESA harnesses and leashes to a medallion for $10.25 that claims (erroneously) that the emotional support animal is protected by federal law.

Neither Canada nor the United States has federal laws regarding ESAs. What exists is a patchwork with rules that may cover airlines, but could be different from laws regulating airports or even restaurants in airports.

There are also other provincial or state laws that apply.

In B.C., for example, the only exemptions to no-pet rules in condominiums and rental properties are those covered by the Guide Dog Service Animal Act. But a 2016 B.C. Human Rights Tribunal ruling suggested that under the Human Rights Code, an exemption for uncertified pets may be required if not having that pet could put the individual at significant risk.

There’s no doubt Canadians and Americans love their pets almost to distraction. In 2018 alone, Canadians spent $8 billion on pets, which was nearly double the amount only three years earlier.

Where once dogs and cats might have been sent to kennels, they’ve morphed into pet spas where part of the service is sending daily emails and videos to their vacationing ‘parents.’

But while service dogs have long proven their worth as constant companions, there’s still some way to go before emotional support animals and their owners get the same kind of consideration.

Because, while it may all be part of a developing country adventure to share space on buses with chickens and goats taking their final trip to market, having a turkey as a flight companion or as a next door neighbour is a different thing altogether.


Twitter: @bramham_daphne