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Emotional Support Animals Draw Controversy In The Air And In Neighborhoods

Cassie Boness (at left) and Dan Kolde joined Tuesday's "St. Louis on the Air" to discuss the role of emotional support animals and the legalities that surround them.
Cassie Boness & St. Louis Public Radio

Do a quick Google Image search of “emotional support animals,” and you’ll see various photos of animals on planes or in airports dressed in vests denoting their purpose. Under the Air Carrier Access Act, passengers needing to travel with an emotional support animal can do so with some basic documentation. 

There are limitations. 

United Airlines had to change its policy after a passenger attempted to board a plane with an emotional support peacock. The airline stated that the fowl was barred from the plane because it “did not meet guidelines for a number of reasons, including its weight and size.”

Emotional support animals have drawn pushback on land as well. In St. Louis, a woman in Creve Coeur is fighting to keep custody of her three emotional support monkeys after neighbors complained to City Hall. Creve Coeur classifies a monkey as an "inherently dangerous animal," along with alligators, lions and pythons. 

So what rights do owners of emotional support animals have? Are some abusing the designation in order to fly with pets or keep nuisance species?

On Tuesday’s St. Louis on the Air, host Sarah Fenske discussed the purpose of emotional support animals, how they differ from both service animals and pets, and what rights their owners have. 

Joining the discussion was Cassie Boness, a doctoral student in psychology at the University of Missouri. She co-authored the study, “Emotional support animal assessments: Toward a standard and comprehensive model for mental health professionals,” published by the American Psychological Association

Dan Kolde, a local attorney who specializes in animal cases, also joined the program. He explained that while service animals are trained for a specific function related to a disability — a guide dog for the visually impaired, a dog that assists a person in a wheelchair, or animals that detect oncoming seizures — emotional support animals provide simply comfort. 

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, certified owners can take service animals to public spaces such as grocery stores, restaurants and buses. But there are really only two places where emotional support animals have additional rights: homes and planes. 

As part of the Fair Housing Act, a landlord cannot discriminate against a tenant certified to own an emotional support animal, Kolde said. And the Air Carrier Access Act, which sought to ensure disabled residents have access to air travel, says that emotional support animals must be given reasonable accommodation.

Still, Kolde said that some air travelers take advantage of a system designed to help those with genuine disabilities.

“There's always that undercurrent of people that are maybe, we think, trying to take advantage of the system to travel with their pets—which is understandable, lots of dogs die in airplanes and the cargo parts everywhere,” Kolde said. “So people are trying to get their pets on when maybe they don't necessarily have a documented disability.”

Many online sources offer to sell travelers an “Emotional Support Animal Letter,” sight unseen. But Kolde said such letters would not hold up in a landlord dispute or other litigation. In addition, Boness said even letters certified by therapists may cause ethical issues. 

“A lot of licensed mental health professionals just aren't aware of some of the issues that are created when we're put in this position [to issue letters],” Boness said.

“There's actually a real conflict between having to make this comprehensive disability evaluation to say that someone does or does not need an emotional support animal and the traditional role of a licensed mental health professional, which would be to provide what we would traditionally think of in terms of therapy.” 

She added that certifying somebody with a disability or psychiatric disability could have unintended consequences later in life, where the document could be used against them. That could include getting security clearance or a child custody dispute.

Boness explained that mental health professionals are reevaluating how best to provide certification for clients. Familiarizing themselves with the law, she said, is a great place to start.

“The other components would be this comprehensive assessment of a client, the comprehensive assessment of the animal: Does the animal have things like basic obedience training? Is it actually trained to perform some disability related task or to alleviate this disability?” she explained. “The third component is to evaluate the client and the presence of that animal. So if the animal provides some sort of comfort or emotional support, there should be some way of observing that or demonstrating it. That actually is the key.”

Listen to the full conversation to hear more about the legal issues surrounding emotional support animals: 

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill, Lara Hamdan, Alexis Moore and Tonina Saputo. The engineer is Aaron Doerr, and production assistance is provided by Charlie McDonald.

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