exotic service animals illustration

(Ia Balbuena-Nedrow/Emerald)

Service animals draw a lot of attention while they’re out working in public. Their adorable vests and professional posture make them the cutest laborers in town. But what some people try to pull off as a “therapy animal” might surprise you, and it’s ruining the system for people who actually need service animals to aid them in their disability.

The Americans with Disabilities Act recognizes only trained dogs as service animals. The canines perform tasks such as guiding the blind, sensing oncoming seizures and calming people who suffer from PTSD.

Therapy animals are not considered service animals under the ADA. These are animals that provide companionship and help with depression and anxiety, but they do not necessarily have any training for protecting people with disabilities.

The dilemma arises when people try to get away with bringing odd animals wherever they go by calling it a therapy animal. This is problematic because even if a facility has a strict “no pets” policy, if an animal is claimed to be there for therapeutic purposes, the facility manager can only ask two questions.

Is the animal required because of a disability? What tasks can the animal perform?

It is illegal to ask for proof of medical records or for certification of the animal. Some companies even sell vests that say “Service Dog” so that you may take your pet with you everywhere, and then threaten to sue if anyone questions the legitimacy of it.

But dogs are not usually the issue. Some heads may turn at the site of a mutt prancing into a fancy restaurant, but there are more bizarre issues to be addressed.

For example, take the passenger on Delta Airlines who brought along her live turkey for emotional support. Not only was this incredibly dangerous for the animal; the other passengers were completely unnerved by it and could not do anything to stop it.

In 2011 alone, 35 pets died while flying on an airplane. The stress that flying induces for animals can be fatal, and unless it has wings and a beak, animals should stay on the ground if at all possible.

But airlines refer to themselves as a “sue-happy society,” meaning that their clientele tend to look for reasons to sue and will accept every opportunity to do so. The result — everyone’s furry friend gets to join them on their flight, no matter how uncomfortable it makes the other passengers.

A woman in Missouri tried hopping into a fast-food restaurant with her kangaroo, prompting customers to call the police. Luckily, places that aren’t airports have more of a say in who gets to enter their establishment. The woman and her therapy kangaroo were asked to “bounce” immediately.

My cousin, who works at a Starbucks in Las Vegas, told me about a regular customer who frequently orders his coffee with a therapy monkey on his shoulder. While I find that absolutely adorable, many others are afraid of monkeys and would prefer not to listen to “ooh ooh ah ah” on their coffee break.

In no way am I arguing that therapy animals are always illegitimate and do not provide necessary support to those who need it. Dogs and cats are wonderful companions and people with anxiety and depression should be allowed to bring them along wherever they go.

The main concern is how safe it is for the animal to be out in public, and the comfort of those who are also in its presence. Wild and non-traditional animals should not be tolerated in places like airports and restaurants if it threatens the hygiene and well-being of the people who share that space.

Dogs and cats are perfectly acceptable candidates for therapy animals, but please don’t make me  give up my window seat for a turkey.

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