Peacocks, hamsters, turkeys, snakes and sugar gliders. These animals all have something in common, and it’s not simply that they’re all animals. The topic of these odd choices for Emotional Support Animals (ESAs) and Service Animals has been going around the news and social media quite frequently lately. Delta Airlines, United Way and Spirit Airlines have been cracking down on ESA and Service Animal laws more frequently due to an approximate 84 percent increase in incidents involving animals. People have been trying to pass off their exoctic pets, even tarantulas, as ESAs in order to get them on flights. While in some cases exotic animals may indeed serve as ESAs, there are limits.
The concern with animals on flights isn’t even necessarily with ESAs and Service Animals themselves, it’s with the imposters who pose a threat to passengers and staff. All too often people will attempt to pass off a pet as a Service or Emotional Support Animal. Pets who are not properly trained as ESAs or Service Animals may cause disruptions and cause harm or damage. There was an incident over the summer in which a dog, that the owner tried to falsely pass off as an ESA, barked and jumped at people during the two-hour flight and at one point bit a passenger several times causing them to be hospitalized.
Another recent debate involved a peacock. While birds can be ESAs, there is some level of practicality necessary when choosing them. Smaller birds, such as cockatiels or chickens, would be acceptable as long as they are contained and under control. However peacocks, sometimes weighing as much as 15 pounds and being about 10 feet in length, aren’t exactly an ideal choice. United Way recently refused to allow a woman to board with her peacock, which she claimed was an ESA. She had called ahead requesting permission for her peacock, Dexter, to be allowed on the flight. Despite being told multiple times not to bring the Dexter, the woman bought an extra plane ticket for her peacock and showed up to the check-in with Dexter in tow. It’s understandable that flight companies wouldn’t want a bird of this size, a typically wild and loud bird at that, to be a potential concern on a flight.
Occasionally, legitimate ESAs are wrongly refused on flights. A college student tried catching a flight home with her ESA hamster, Pebbles. After getting approval ahead of time, and then checking in with her small companion, the student was informed by security personnel that Pebbles was not allowed on the plane. Not having anyone who could care for the hamster while she was away, the student said that she was told to flush Pebbles down a toilet. After already postponing her flight, and still not finding a solution, the student took the employee’s advice and flushed the hamster. This was, as would be expected, a distressing situation for the student and she allegedly plans to sue Spirit Airlines for refusing her ESA onboard and resulting in the unfortunate demise of the poor creature.
The lines between accommodating people, discriminating against others or ensuring the safety of all the passengers, is blurry. There should be guidelines limiting the types of ESAs and Service Animals, such as not allowing peacocks or pigs onto flights. But animals who are well behaved or easily contained should be allowed if they have a doctor’s note and evidence of proper vaccinations. Some airlines will be tightening up their ESA and Service Animal rules, while others are remaining less stringent. Perhaps they should also work on a solution for situations such as Pebbles the hamster. Should there be a miscommunication or misunderstanding, owners shouldn’t be forced to part with their ESAs, Service Animals or even their “imposter” pets, or worse, be forced to make a decision resulting in a fate such as that of poor Pebbles.