Limits for snowflakes: Animals on airplanes are becoming more common, prompting tighter rules for service animals vs. “emotional support” animals

United Airlines refused to let a woman bring her peacock aboard their flight last January 27, despite claims that the animal was there for “emotional support.” The airline cited the peacock’s size and weight, along with other restrictions, that prevented the passenger from bringing the exotic bird on board. The female traveler offered to buy her pet its own plane ticket but was still refused. Spokespeople from United Airlines say they repeatedly told the woman – both before she checked in and while she was at the airport – that they would not allow her to bring her peacock. After six hours of arguing, the woman decided to drive to her location instead of flying.

The peacock, called Dexter, belongs to Brooklyn-based artist, Ventiko. Her artwork is varied, but a careful look at her social media shows mostly photos of the exotic bird. Ventiko has been very upfront that the feathery giant has “changed [her] life in a positive way.” The artist, whose real name is not known, says that she doesn’t want to expose Dexter to public transportation because she “doesn’t want to traumatize him.”

Enter the controversy. Ventiko wanted to fly to her next performance with Dexter in tow. She claimed that she needed the bird to be with her wherever she went. Thankfully though, airline officials put their foot down.

Several airlines are now coming together to update their policies regarding emotional support animals (which can range from snakes to pigs to ducks) that can ride with their companions in the cabin. Delta Air Lines, for example, has said that they require at least a 48-hour notice and more documentation for both trained and untrained emotional support animals. The approval process for these documents is said to be rather severe after a large comfort dog bit another passenger last June on a flight from Atlanta to San Diego.

American Airlines is likewise expected to create more stringent safety guidelines regarding emotional support animals.

“Unfortunately, untrained animals can lead to safety issues for our team, our passengers, and working dogs onboard our aircraft,” said Ross Feinstein, an American Airlines spokesman. “We agree with Delta’s efforts and will continue to support the rights of [our] customers, from veterans to people with disabilities, with legitimate needs [emphasis added].”

This seems to be the key issue here. Airlines need to determine if a person truly needs a pet for authentic reasons rather than as a means to cheat a system. Federal guidelines so far are a little vague on what constitutes a service animal or just a glorified pet. According to Larry Philippe, managing director of Student Disability Services and Texas Tech University Americans with Disabilities Act Campus Coordinator, some people claim their animal is meant for emotional support so that they can take their pet on a plane free of charge.

Current laws allow individuals to bring trained animals for specific reasons, including psychiatric ones. However, passengers need to prove a veterinary health form or vaccination record of the animal along with a doctor’s note that the passenger is in need of that animal. Still, it is under the airline’s discretion on what type of animal to take. Pets such as turkeys, possums, monkeys, and pigs should be evaluated on a case-to-case basis.

Romie Mushtaq, a medical doctor based in Orlando, said that airlines need to be stricter in their definition of an “emotional support” animal, especially if it turns out to be an exotic one. She says that there is no medical proof that shows that animals other than highly trained dogs and horses are more effective in calming people down with anxieties, stress, or phobias.

Mental health professionals counter-argue that implementing stricter guidelines will add additional stress to already-ill patients.

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