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Pigs, turkeys and other unusual 'emotional support' animals causing air travel controversy

Emotional support animals

(NaturalNews) When you're boarding a plane it's normal to wonder with a little nervousness about the passenger who will be sitting next to you. Will you end up seated beside someone who talks nonstop or has poor hygiene? While there are lots of scenarios that might play through your mind, few people expect to find themselves sitting next to a pig or a turkey when traveling by plane. However, this is something that has been happening with greater frequency recently, as more passengers take advantage of relatively lax support animal rules.

While most of us can understand the need for a blind person to be accompanied by their seeing eye dog wherever they go, things get a little hazier when it comes to the prospect of "emotional support animals," or ESAs.

In theory, these animals provide their owners with emotional support, soothing those who deal with phobias, anxiety and panic attacks when flying. Unfortunately, a number of healthy passengers are exploiting this rule so that they can fly their animals for free in the cabin rather than paying the fee and having their animal travel separately.

Part of the problem stems from the fact that it's simply too easy to have your pet designated as an emotional support animal. The only requirements are an official letter written by a mental health professional and a special vest. A number of enterprising websites have popped up that offer this service for a flat fee, and people only have to fill out a questionnaire and reach into their wallets to qualify.

This abuse has led a number of U.S. carriers to call for the recognition of emotional support animals to be scrapped altogether, or at least to have some limits imposed on the types of species that are allowed on board. People have been known to bring turkeys, pigs and even roosters on planes all in the name of "emotional support."

Some mental health advocates feel that it's hard to navigate the issue. They say that changing the rules to place psychiatric service dogs in the same category as those service dogs that help people with physical disabilities shouldn't be too difficult. These psychiatric service dogs are trained to help individuals suffering from mental illness remain balanced or take medications, among other things. Emotional support animals, on the other hand, do not undergo any type of training. They are believed to help owners by their mere presence. Some advocacy groups even want the requirement for a letter from a mental health professional to be scrapped on the grounds that it is "stigmatizing."

Air Carrier Access Act not strict enough

The Air Carrier Access Act, which was passed in 1986, allows service animals on planes, and specifies that they cannot be removed solely based on objections from other passengers. The animal is not allowed to walk around the cabin, and the owner must make plans for its waste to be cleanly disposed of. In addition, they are not allowed to sit near emergency exits or block aisles. Some airlines have set their own guidelines. For example, Delta and a few others prohibit service animals that are considered unusual, such as reptiles, snakes, rodents, spiders, ferrets and farm poultry. Airlines in most other countries do not allow emotional support animals at all.

Animals on planes pose a number of problems

Seeking emotional support from an animal is certainly a preferable route to taking dangerous antidepressants, for example, but in the close confines of an airplane, it can be a recipe for disaster for other passengers. Dog and cat allergies are not uncommon. The Asthma and Allergy Foundation is pushing for stricter rules because all passengers are exposed to pet dander when an animal is on their flight, and this lack of clean air could well trigger asthma attacks for some people. In addition, animals have reportedly bitten crew members and other passengers on flights.

A letter written by a group including Delta, JetBlue, United and Frontier airlines calls therapy pets "by far the source of most of the fraud and other problems" caused by the rule. Airlines currently find themselves in a difficult position, because those that refuse requests for legitimate support animals could face fines of as much as $150,000.

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