Thursday, November 13, 2014

Pet friendly

Patricia Marx had an excellent piece in The New Yorker a few weeks back on the new pet-owner trend in which those who can’t stand being separated from their furry or feathered friends have them arbitrarily declared support companions. This enables them to bring their animals anywhere they damn well please: grocery shopping, out to dinner, trains and boats and planes.

Personally, I enjoy animals, and am, in particular, a dog lover.

Recently, I saw a sign that read something along the lines of: in an ideal world, all dogs would have homes, and all homes would have dogs.

True that…

While having a pup isn’t right for me just now, I look on my dogged up neighbors with envy, find myself petting at least one strange dog a day, get myself over to the off-leash area on the Boston Common on occasion to watch the canine frolic, and spend as much time possible chilling with my black lab nephew Jack – who really is the world’s cutest and sweetest dog ever.

But I don’t think that dogs – other than service dogs - let alone other non-human members of the animal kingdom  – belong everywhere.

Others think otherwise.

As Ms. Marx has it:

What a wonderful time it is for the scammer, the conniver, and the cheat: the underage drinkers who flash fake I.D.s, the able-bodied adults who drive cars with handicapped license plates, the parents who use a phony address so that their child can attend a more desirable public school, the customers with eleven items who stand in the express lane. The latest group to bend the law is pet owners.

…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. (Source: The New Yorker)

One woman that Marx wrote about went a-traveling with a large mutt – which, unlike true service animals, was untrained. Doggy Dowrong crapped in the aisle on a US Airways flight.

The plane had to make an emergency landing halfway cross country so that things could get cleaned up.

Some are flashing their “emotional-support card” and bringing their pooches into restaurants, where they allow their pets to climb on the table. (Something you never see a true service dog doing.)

Although restaurants and other businesses aren’t required to allow an emotional support animal into their premises, if someone’s waving their emotional-support card in their face, for the most part they cave in. Who wants to risk a legal wrangle? And who’s up on the laws?

Service dogs, on the hand, are the real deal:

The I.R.S. classifies these dogs as a deductible medical expense, whereas an emotional-support animal is more like a blankie. An E.S.A. [emotional support animal] is defined by the government as an untrained companion of any species that provides solace to someone with a disability, such as anxiety or depression.

E.S.A.’s are covered by the Fair Housing Act and the Air Carrier Access Act.

So any old animal who’s gotten a however-bogus certificate of E.S.A.-ness can live down the hall and get on your flight.

But that’s it.

Years ago, I shared a flight from Cleveland to Boston with a woman who was traveling with a howler monkey. I have no idea whether the animal was classified as an E.S.A. I don’t think we had them back in the day. Back then, we only had “seeing eye dogs”.

But I can say that they don’t call it a howler monkey for nothing. And the monkey’s uncle – or, rather aunt – spent the entire flight in one of the two toilets trying to provide emotional support to her howler.

Anyway, Marx wanted to check out just how bogus a racket E.S.A. credentials are, so she:

…decided to go undercover as a person with an anxiety disorder (not a stretch) and run around town with five un-cuddly, non-nurturing animals for which I obtained E.S.A. credentials (one animal at a time; I’m not that crazy).

Her first E.S.A., sporting an E.S.A. badge she found on Amazon, was a turtle. She took it to the Frick Museum, where she was told that no animals need apply.

So she took out her certifying letter, which stated that:

Ms. Marx has a turtle that provides significant emotional support, and ameliorates the severity of symptoms that affect her daily ability to fulfill her responsibilities and goals. Without the companionship, support, and care-taking activities of her turtle, her mental health and daily living activities are compromised. In my opinion, it is a necessary component of treatment to foster improved psychological adjustment, support functional living activities, her well being, productivity in work and home responsibilities, and amelioration of the severity of psychological issues she experiences in some specific situations to have an Emotional Support Animal (ESA).

She has registered her pet with the Emotional Support Animal Registration of America. This letter further supports her pet as an ESA, which entitles her to the rights and benefits legitimized by the Fair Housing Act and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. It allows exceptions to housing, and transportation services that otherwise would limit her from being able to be accompanied by her emotional support animal.

There are, apparently, all sorts of folks who have some credential or another – think certified clinical social worker – who’ll chat you up on the phone, give you a remote diagnosis, and bless your use of your animal of choice. Marx talked to a social worker and got her snake certified, then modified the letter to cover a turtle, too.

Mostly you don’t even need to talk to anyone. You just click on a couple of forms, and your animal is good to go. (All for a fee, of course.)

During her period of E.S.A. exploration, Marx took:

  • A turtle to the Frick and elsewhere – including a Christian Louboutin shop
  • A snake to an apartment open house and to a Chanel boutique;
  • A turkey on the Hampton Jitney and to a deli;
  • An alpaca on Amtrak from NYC to Niagara Falls, and to a historic site “showcasing the nineteenth-century home of the painter Frederic Edwin Church;”
  • A pig to Boston on JetBlue for tea at the Four Seasons.

Rarely was she turned down or any more than mildly challenged.

People with genuine impairments who depend on actual service animals are infuriated by the sort of imposture I perpetrated with my phony E.S.A.s.

Service dogs (and other true service animals: some folks use monkeys to take care of tasks in the home) do real work for people with real impairments.

Who can blame them for being ticked off?

A lot of those claiming that they need their pets for emotional support don’t really. And many of them are just out and out faking it.

I understand that animals can and do give plenty of comfort, and that they can understand plenty of what’s going on, emotional-wise.

When my sister’s dog Jack, who was very fond of my husband, came into our condo for the first time after Jim’s death, Jack looked around for a bit, figured out that Diggy wasn’t there, let out a little moan, sighed, and plopped on to the rug, head on paws, facing away from us.

Jack sure knew something was going on.

And just seeing comfort animals around does give comfort. After the Marathon bombings, a group came to Boston with a few golden retrievers to walk around giving comfort. They did.

But most folks, however emotionally needy they may be, don’t need to have their pets with them all the time. And if they do, maybe they should consider just staying home.

They’re exploiting the system, and, of course, denigrating and insulting those with real issues, who gain real, and genuinely needed, support by having their animals with them.

It’s a lousy things to do to the animals, too.

Every time I see him, I get plenty of emotional support from my canine pal Jack. But I’d never insult him by ordering some bogus certificate online, and slapping a fake official vest on him, so I could bring him into a restaurant.

Not that I’m completely above faking it as needed.

When we were seniors in college, and living off-campus, my roommate and I had a dog. A German shepherd.

One night, we got a call that her mother, who was recovering from breast cancer surgery. Mrs. B help that she wasn’t getting from her support team (Joyce’s eccentric aunts). We had to get to Rhode Island. Quickly.

I can’t remember why Joyce didn’t just go on her own. I do know that she wanted me for emotional support in what was going to be a tough situation.

In any case, we decided to chance taking Grimbald on the bus from Boston to Providence.

I put on a pair of sunglasses, and away we went.

So sometimes you really do have to fake it.

But that was then - 40+ years ago - and it was a one-time emergency situation.

And this is now, when the world is so me-me-me that a lot of people don’t give a damn about whether their little wants impose on the wants and needs of others.

Shame on them. And bravo to Patricia Marx for being something of a dog-whistle blower here. (Wish I’d run into her and the pig when they were walking around Boston Common.)

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