You Are Not Entitled to Bring an Emotional Support Peacock on Your Flight

Therapy animals are not the same thing as service animals, and companies don't have to accommodate them.


Sanjeev Kumar

United Airlines employees recently stopped a passenger from boarding a flight with her emotional support animal in tow, because the animal was a peacock. Good for them—the emotional-support-animal-as-travel-buddy is an annoyance to other passengers, and of dubious therapeutic value, according to the relevant science.

"This animal did not meet guidelines for a number of reasons, including its weight and size," a United spokesperson said in a statement. "We explained this to the customers on three separate occasions before they arrived at the airport."

United is not the only airline standing athwart the therapy-animal craze and yelling stop; earlier this month, Delta officials announced stricter standards for passengers with fur, feathers, and scales, lamenting that "customers have attempted to fly with comfort turkeys, gliding possums known as sugar gliders, snakes, spiders and more."

It's true that the Americans with Disabilities Act requires companies to make accommodations for service animals. But service animals are different from emotional support animals—they perform a specific, well-defined function or task, like escorting a blind owner, or providing warning when an owner is about to have a seizure. "A person with depression may have a dog that is trained to remind her to take her medication," the ADA's website explains, but "animals that provide comfort just by being with a person" are not service animals. You can stick an adorable I'm-a-therapy-animal costume on your pooch, but this does not obligate anyone else to take your claim seriously. (Not under federal law, at least—local authorities may feel differently.)

This lack of official, legal recognition for comfort animals is perfectly justified. Regardless of how indispensable a passenger might believe her therapy peacock to be, the science on emotional support animals is decidedly mixed. According to The Washington Post:

A recent literature review by Molly Crossman, a Yale University doctoral candidate who recently wrapped up one study involving an 8-year-old dog named Pardner, cited a "murky body of evidence" that sometimes has shown positive short-term effects, often found no effect and occasionally identified higher rates of distress.

It's easy to see why bringing a peacock—or even just a dog—onto a plane might be more likely to provoke stress than to alleviate it. These animals aren't necessarily trained, might not behave themselves during the flight, and could distract or upset other passengers.

The increasing popularity of therapy animals appears to track with a greater public willingness to talk about mental health, particularly among young people. Many college students now claim they have PTSD; sometimes, because of the toll their activism takes on their mental health, they claim. Some schools are making allowances for students who want therapy animals—and that's fine. But it would be wrong to require public accommodation of therapy animals, at least until researchers produce more compelling evidence of their benefits. That goes double for airlines and triple for peacocks.

(I say all this as the proud owner of two adorable Yorkies.)

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  1. Therapy spiders?

    1. Say hello to Sydney. Don’t pet him. He bites.

  2. (I say all this as the proud owner of two adorable Yorkies.)

    Oh my God.

    1. This explains everything.

      1. Did you have any doubts?

    2. Yeah, he’s pretty just living a troll at this point. I kind of like it. I bet their names are Princess Peanut and Madame Fifi, too.

    3. The Coif has spawned.

  3. You can take my therapeutic proboscis monkey from my cold, dead hands, Soave.

    1. In other words, Rico should not be sticking his nose in your business.

    2. Cold dead hands? Well, someone’s seen Monkey Shines.

    1. “quack”?

      You mean allopath.

      1. Naturopathic oncologist. Not making that up.

        1. I don’t know, eating some jalapenos to cure cancer sure makes sense to me.

          1. I’ll try that next lifetime.

            1. Yep, that was your mistake – you should have eating some hot peppers or something.

          2. Put that under your scotch bonnet and smoke it

          3. Put that under your scotch bonnet and smoke it

    2. SIV hates quacks. He much prefers clucks.

    3. Yes, I was just about to say. Soave’s piece is exceedingly sloppy. (Wouldn’t know it to look at him, would you?)

      This brought some well needed air to the poorly known distinction between a service animal, a working animal (recently defined qua ADA to be limited to dogs or horses) stringently selected and trained to perform specific tasks for a disabled user, and a therapy animal, which is a type of pet prescribed by a healthcare provider who has determined that having a pet would be effective psychological treatment for the patient. Most dogs you see accompanying combat vets–even visibly disabled combat vets–are “prescribed” pets, not service animals, however heartwarming the news reports may be about how important the dog was to the vet’s emotional recovery. Being cute and cuddly and affectionate is not a working task; their therapeutic benefit to depression or PTSD is very real, but that does not make it crucial–or even at all desirable from a clinical standpoint–that their constant presence at the patient’s side be accommodated by society…

      1. Accordingly, “public accommodations” are, as a rule, only required to accommodate service animals. But disability issues in housing are covered by the FHA, not the ADA; and commercial flights are covered by FAA regulations. Both of these mandate accommodation for the keeping and transportation of therapy animals as well–a matter that has proven much more complicated for landlords and carriers to navigate. (They’ve moved quite gingerly up until now, and of course much more so when dealing with wealthy or powerful pet owners.) Additionally, there may be local laws mandating accommodation of therapy animals, or otherwise stronger than federal regulation. But clarity has, in general, been slow to come; I think that this, and the boom in service-animal law abuse, has been enabled not only by the Internet but by the surge in combat PTSD. Nobody wants to be seen as telling the guy who left his leg in Afghanistan to also leave Fido outside.

        Long story short, Robby’s article is sloppy and misleading, potentially hazardously so for readers.

  4. I want to bring my tarantula on flight because it comforts me when my fellow passengers feel discomfort. It makes me feel comfortable when people scream in terror.

  5. Get those Yorkies some rats to play with. They’re sporting dogs.

    1. Next up, emotional support prostitutes.

      1. I’d like to thank four terrible fathers for this evening…

      2. At least the prostitutes are humans

    2. SIV refuses to fly on any airline that won’t accommodate his “emotional support” chickens.

      1. Chicken prostitutes? You’re making that up.

        1. With chickens, you don’t pay extra for anal.

    3. I too did not figure Robbie to be butch enough for terriers. Had him for a bichon frise man myself.

  6. I live in an old city with tons of historically-protected buildings. Obviously they do not have handicap ramps. We have a guy around here that sues every entity without a ramp for millions of dollars. The local university is his favorite target as they use historic buildings as offices and administrative buildings. So now we have many awkward ramps consuming the entire sidewalk, and then he sues the city for having a sidewalk too narrow for a wheelchair. The ADA is very easy to abuse.

    United made the right call. A peacock? Seriously? I imagine that they’re quite loud, and that would cause distress for everyone else on the flight.

    1. And they poop everywhere. If you can’t potty train it, it shouldn’t be a service animal.

    2. Peacocks are screeching, mean, smelly, vicious bastards. And they’re common as fuck; it’s not like they’re rare or endangered or anything. Don’t be distracted by the appearance. Basically they’re the young Tara Reid of birds.

  7. If you’re so fragile that you need an emotional support animal just to get through a normal day and a teddy bear or a blankey just won’t do, you might need to see about checking yourself into one of those safe spaces that include padded walls and doors that lock from the outside. But if you’re trying to force your way aboard an aircraft with a peacock and telling anybody that objects about Muh Rights!, I’m guessing you ain’t a damn bit fragile, you’re just a pushy bitch.

    1. But if you’re trying to force your way aboard an aircraft with a peacock and telling anybody that objects about Muh Rights!, I’m guessing you ain’t a damn bit fragile, you’re just a pushy bitch.

      And you’re probably a tacky dresser with terrible taste in music.

  8. Q2. What does “do work or perform tasks” mean?

    a dog that is trained to remind her to take her medication

    OK, if doggy medication timer is a thing then I should get to have my no-carbs bear.

    1. I think it’s more intended for people who don’t have the wherewithal to remember their medication. If you actually had a medical issue with carbs you probably could get a no-carbs dog, but bears aren’t allowed under the ADA. It has to be a dog, I think.

      1. What does that even mean? It eats the bread from your burger so you don’t have to?

        1. No, if he tries to eat carbs, the bear kills him. It’s very effective, but just the once.

          1. It may be just once but it’s forever.

        2. What does that even mean? It eats the bread from your burger so you don’t have to?

          What the hell does a medication timer dog do that an egg timer doesn’t? If the timer goes off, you take your medicine. If you can’t remember what the timer was for, the dog isn’t going to tell you, “Take your medication dummy.”

          At this point, I find it a bit difficult to believe that there isn’t some manner of phone service or face time app tied to a call center that just calls people at a certain time and tells them to take their medicine and then waits until their done.

          In any event, I’m pretty sure no-carbs bear would do more work, more effectively, than either/any of them.

      2. Many a POTUS has had a therapy pussy… so why not?

      3. Service animals are restricted to dogs, monkeys and, of course, miniature horses.

        1. No monkeys last I checked. I thought that seemed unfair–especially since the usefulness of horses has been seriously overhyped. But I checked later and it seems monkeys are probably the more seriously overhyped. I am rather skeptical at this point on exactly the question one might have intuitively–whether someone who is so thoroughly disabled that they would need a monkey for personal tasks would be able to control such an animal (monkeys are not potty trainable and are violent and temperamental by nature). Horses are seriously overhyped too, and touch and go at this point, but they probably deserve to be on the list.

          Not that the ADA isn’t a top to bottom travesty, of course–one of the most damaging and insidious pieces of legislation in American history and a far deeper travesty (however more sympathetic its beneficiaries) than any “trans protection law.”

          1. Addendum: Not even monkeys’ staunchest defenders claim that they are appropriate for use outside the house–again, because they are skittish and excitable. That alone should rule them out for ADA recognition, since the ADA does not cover anything inside the home.

            1. I can’t be right about everything.

              1. I can’t be right about everything.

                You should really look into getting a memory elephant or a fact beaver.

      4. I think it’s more intended for people who don’t have the wherewithal to remember their medication.

        So, they can’t remember to take their medication but are able to rely on the dog, who has little concept of time, to alert them to the fact that it’s time to take their medication and that Timmy fell down the well?

        I think we need to deport some of these people and get a visa program going for their dogs.

  9. My Burmese python soothes me on flights, and also smothers and devours all other emotional support animals whole. It’s a win-win.

  10. I for one am glad to see United Airlines stand up for sensible people everywhere and finally take a stand against this societal menace. America holds off collapse for one more day.

  11. Say hello to my support lyrebird.

  12. I’ve seen 2 airline guidelines that are out of alignment with the ADA, though they could be fully justified on airplanes. Still, they could face a lawsuit of two along the way:

    1) Dogs are *not* the only animals covered by the “service animal” definition. The one other animal is actually a miniature horse. By limiting animals to canines only, airlines could get into some trouble. They could probably argue based on the limited space onboard a plane, and that a horse is simply too big to be in the passenger compartment and would create a safety issue.

    2) According to the ADA, there is no official curriculum, certificate, or training required to claim an animal is specifically trained to perform a task. You can self-train your service animal. All you have to say is that the animal is specifically trained, and there isn’t much a business can do beyond that. Again, since a plane has limited and enclosed space for, potentially, hours on end, airlines might be able to get away with asking for more than the ADA allows.

    1. See my comment above. Businesses only have to accommodate “service animals” per the ADA, such as seeing eye dogs. Airlines are subject to the ACAA and have to accommodate multiple-personality peacocks, bipolar possums, oppositional-defiant disorder ducks and the like

      1. Yes. Also, (2) runs together two slightly different issues: (a) what an animal user must do to be protected by the law in matter of fact; and (b) what a business owner is allowed to do to determine whether or not a customer is protected by the law. It’s true that (b) is extremely limited; you can only ask if the dog/horse is a service animal and what task it is trained to perform. It’s also true that the regulation does not specify any training mode or provide for official certification for any party in the training process, etc. But in practice standard selection and training procedures for these animals are very demanding indeed. Were you ever to actually find your under the microscope–not by a business owner, who again lacks the power, but by, say, as a court matter for some purpose or another–you would surely run into some difficulties if your “service animal” displayed an aptitude and/or training history deviating so sharply from the professional norm. Laws are interpreted in the most straightforward way, not the most favorable or permissive. (After all, you don’t technically speaking need any sort of doctor’s recognition of your disability to claim ADA protection, much less be required to prove one by a business owner. That hardly means “you can claim anything you want.”)

    2. Very true. Where I teach, we have been instructed that, indeed, miniature horses can be allowed on campus for emotional support, but not necessarily in the classroom. I don’t want to live on this planet any longer.

      1. Sounds potentially incredibly misleading. Mini horses are the one species in addition to dogs that can be genuine service animals. If a student claims such a purpose for her animal, prohibiting it from your classroom is a violation of federal law.

        If a horse–or for that matter a dog–is indeed merely for emotional support, then federal law prescribes no accommodation for the animal anywhere on campus except potentially the dorms. There may be state or local laws at play, and of course whatever policy the school decides upon, but their instructions seem to have been sloppy enough to expose you to potential federal violations.

        1. I was speaking specifically of emotional support.

          1. Ah, then you at least are clear. I didn’t think that was it because it seems rather odd to specify mini horses as an emotional support animal. They are not a particularly common emotional support animal, especially on a college campus. (They require a large yard to be kept in, for example, and cannot be transported to a site by an ordinary car.) Nor do they seem to be a particularly undisruptive emotional support animal. Wouldn’t, say, a turtle or guinea pig or cat be a far more typical choice?

  13. There is always the pilot, and ‘passenger safety’.
    Many a batshit crazy person, and one sane doctor, have been dragged off flights because the captain say so. End of story, ADA be damned, and the union backs him to the hilt, even if he is a her.

  14. (I say all this as the proud owner of two adorable Yorkies.)

    Um, how else do I put this? You are their service animal.

    1. btw, thank you for the pics. They are cute, albeit useless creatures.

      1. Yorkies aren’t useless, they’re excellent ratters.

        1. They are terriers, so ultimately not useless–or low maintenance–no matter how cute and powderpuffy they may look. They do, technically speaking, serve a purpose. (And that purpose is killing.) But I think Jack Russells are the best ratters out of all, if I’m not mistaken.

  15. I travel with my support chimp. Just try to get him of the plane.

  16. Even service dogs are often not legit these days and because everyone and their think they can train a dog, even people who try to have a legit service dog don’t. I’ve worked with so many service dogs for behavioral issues including biting and they all had one thing in common- they were trained by their owner.

    Now, I’m not saying we need to license trainers. I’m saying that if we got rid of the stupid laws that allow service dogs to go everywhere, then people would have to prove their dog was a legit service dog. Considering the harm a poorly trained and socialized dog can do, I don’t think it’s asking too much to ask of those who need this service. As the mom of an adult child who has used well trained service dogs since she was 14, I’m more than happy to advocate for that.

    1. Always good to have people from the disabled community point out where overregulation actually harms. I see a lot of frustration out there from disabled people who’ve, for instance, had their service dogs maimed or psychologically ruined from attacks by fakes. But they basically just say, “something’s gotta change” or some such impotent-frustration move; or else they advocate for penalties for faking–a feel-good, completely unenforceable move. (These are currently sweeping the nation on the statewide level.)

  17. This article on Cracked seems quite relevant…..e-dog.html

    1. Shockingly enough, this article on a prominent teen comedy website seems to have missed many of the crucial details of the issue.

      1. To be fair, they are moving away from the comedy…by becoming oh so earnest progressives.

  18. As Linus van Pelt said boarding a flight to Hawaii, “But you don’t understand, this elephant identifies as a security blanket!”

  19. What about my emotional support Python, Cobra, Tarantula, alligator or crocodile?

  20. The increasing popularity of therapy animals appears to track with a greater public willingness to talk about mental health, particularly among young people. Many college students now claim they have PTSD; sometimes, because of the toll their activism takes on their mental health, they claim.

    At the risk of cementing my reputation as a cranky old fart, I see a lot of the “greater public willingness to talk about mental health” as merely a refusal to cope with the stresses that go with living an ordinary adult life. I certainly have days where everything seems to go wrong and everything I touch turns to shit, and who among us doesn’t need a hug once in a while? (Or a blowjob) But none of this makes me special or means that I’m entitled to impose my issues on anyone else. (Other than by bitching on political blogs, of course.) It seems to me that a lot of people just don’t want to grow up.

    And what’s with this bullshit about calling one’s dog a “fur baby” or calling oneself a “parent” on account of owning a dog? More infantile playacting.

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