Back in January of 2019, a female American Airlines traveler made international news for being denied boarding for an “emotional support peacock.”
The peacock, named Dexter, belonged to a Brooklyn-based artist who regularly posed for photography and performance art in addition to emotionally assisting its owner.
The story brought along with it national debate as to the legitimacy of emotional support animals and eventually a new Florida law that passed in early July. The bill makes it more difficult for individuals to verify the therapeutic value of their animal companions.
Currently, there are websites online that charge just $22 dollars to “certify” an emotional support animal. The sites advertise online “doctors” who offer same-day approval and “no hassle” registration.
The new bill amends Florida’s Fair Housing Act by requiring pet owners to have their emotional support animals authorized by real doctors and even goes as far as to penalize those attempting to falsify their pets with a second-degree misdemeanor. It aims to empower housing providers with the ability to deny accommodation for those attempting to use the animals to circumvent animal related fees or regulations.
Many are saying the bill actually protects those with disabilities.
“They think that no one is harmed by it,” said Rory Diamond, CEO of K9s For Warriors. “They think they are clever and cheated the system. But there really is a victim and the victim is someone with a legitimate service dog.”
Diamond said the presence of untrained emotional support animals in spaces reserved for animals servicing those with actual disabilities can have disastrous consequences.
“If an emotional support animal walks by and lunges at a trained service dog, the dog will react,” Diamond said. “Anyone with a legitimate service dog is always on the lookout for a fake service dog.”
K9s For Warriors is a non-profit dedicated to training rescue dogs for service animal work, providing canines to veterans suffering from PTSD, traumatic brain injury or military sexual trauma. The organization says their “service animals” are not to be confused with untrained emotional support animals.
“(The difference) is something that we are really passionate about at K9s For Warriors,” Diamond said “Service dogs are for people with a disability. An emotional support animal could be for just about anyone. I think every single dog in the world is an emotional support animal.”
Currently, the non-profit is working on launching its own “Service Dog Pass” which will serve as a legitimate credential for airlines, businesses and hotels. The pass is being developed in conjunction with the American Kennel Club and is due to debut in 2021.
“The number of fake or untrained service dogs is definitely going up very quickly,” Diamond said. “It's a wild west of unregulated dogs out there.”