The eight puppies born at Airside F in Tampa International Airport last week were adorable instantly, internet famous quickly and controversial not long after.
The white golden retriever parents, a male named Golden Nugget and the pregnant Eleanor Rigby, were set to board an American Airlines flight to Philadelphia with owner Karen Van Atter. That’s when "Ellie" went into labor, while Nugget jumped around like a nervous dad-to-be.
It made national news, met mostly with congratulations and "awws" when the airport posted photos online. But the photos drew substantial negative reactions from people complaining that the dogs were not service animals, in their opinion.
For some, the puppies represent the latest gone-viral disturbance caused by more dogs traveling on planes. American Airlines, for instance, said from 2016 to 2017, it has seen as much as a 40 percent increase in dogs on its flights.
The increase, the offended say, is driven by vague rules and an abundance of emotional support animals. Unlike dogs that guide the blind or detect low blood sugar, these animals soothe passengers suffering from anxiety, depression, PTSD or similar issues, and drawing distinctions can be complicated. An increase in dogs lacking the training and temperament for commercial air travel, often a stressful experience even for humans, has led to reports of bad boys and girls blocking aisles, relieving themselves on seats and even biting.
Some airlines have cracked down on which species can fly as support animals after people flew with birds and rodents. In January, a woman’s emotional support peacock was turned away by United Airlines. In February, a woman said she flushed her emotional support hamster down a toilet after being told it couldn’t fly Spirit.
Suzy Wilburn, director of admissions and alumni for Southeastern Guide Dogs, called the puppy birth at the airport "horrendous," and cruel to Ellie, "since dogs naturally seek privacy and solitude while giving birth." The instinct for the mother to clean up, as well as the possibility for complications, could have made for a disgusting or traumatizing display for unprepared travelers, she said.
Still, the thing that bothered her most was that the dogs were referred to as "service dogs."
"There’s no way a service dog could be pregnant," said Wilburn, who is visually impaired and uses a guide dog. "You need your dog 365 days a year, that dog can’t take a vacation. You can’t give your dog maternity leave. ... It’s also very rare that someone would have two service dogs.
"If it had been someone’s pet, it would have been an adorable story, aside from the fact this pregnant dog shouldn’t have been flying. But people who are trying to trump the process and get their pets on an airline, it makes people look at me funny with my dog and question if it’s really a service dog."
Standards set by the International Guide Dog Federation and Assistance Dogs International, governing bodies that accredit organizations like Southeastern Guide Dogs, say dogs that aren’t spayed or neutered can never go into service. Baby guide dogs come from specialized breeding programs, and those dogs are for breeding, not working.
Van Atter disagreed. She told the Tampa Bay Times that Nugget and Ellie did not come from a specialized breeding program, just a regular breeder. They weren’t trained by a service dog organization, but a private trainer who taught Nugget to help with a litany of health issues, including detecting dangerous drops in her blood pressure or blood sugar, she said. Ellie is undergoing the same training, she said.
She didn’t have the dogs fixed because she’s worried it could affect their hormones and lead to cancer, whichshe said happened to a previous dog.A 2014 study found a possible link between spaying and neutering and a higher risk for certain types of cancer, though experts say more research is needed and recommend fixing most dogs.
And yet, "These are absolutely service dogs. I stand by that," Van Atter said by phone Wednesday. "There’s no reason a service dog can’t be pregnant. That’s absolutely wrong."
Blurring the lines further is how Van Atter additionally describes Ellie and Nugget as both emotional support animals and her pets, something the IGDF, Assistance Dogs International and Southeastern Guide Dogs don’t do. But even while mostly disagreeing with Van Atter, a spokeswoman for Assistance Dogs International agrees there can be legitimate service dogs that are privately trained as Ellie and Nugget were.
So who is to judge if Van Atter’s dogs are legitimate? The coalitions that accredit service dog programs like Southeastern Guide Dogs may be internationally respected, but they have no legal power and are not the final authority.
TIA has signs near the elevators that read "no animals allowed inside terminal except service animals or animals transported by air and in traveling containers." But the airport is subject to the Americans with Disabilities Act, meaning employees legally can’t ask people for proof beyond the questions, "Is that a service dog?" and "What service does it provide?"
So, TIA officials said, they defer to the airlines, which must follow the more permissive Air Carrier Access Act, which specifically allows for emotional support animals.
Airlines can make tweaks to their animal policies, but not big changes. American Airlines, the airline Van Atter and her dogs were set to fly on, announced earlier this month that it will soon require a 48-hour advanced notice and pre-clearance for emotional support animals, including documentation provided by a mental health professional.
Service dogs are not subject to this requirement. Critics note that its embarrassingly easy to get the emotional support dog documentation from websites. There are no rules regarding pregnant animals.
Airlines and airports both say the gray areas are a concern as they balance customer service and safety. Since both lack the authority to make big changes, they’re waiting on the Department of Transportation to figure it out.
"We’re kind of stuck in the middle, and we’re looking to DOT," said TIA spokeswoman Janet Scherberger. "Puppies are cute. Who doesn’t like puppies? But a lot of our resources went into that. We had firefighters, we had police officers and a maintenance team that needed to clean up. ... We’re definitely watching the issue."
On May 16, the DOT started soliciting comments from airports and airlines on the issue and announced it is considering amending the Air Carrier Access Act. Among the issues they’re considering are whether psychiatric service animals should be treated similar to other service animals, and whether there should be a distinction between service and emotional support animals.
Back in Philadelphia, Van Atter said the puppies are all healthy. One will be donated to a local service dog organization, and one will go to her breeder. The other six, she’s still not sure.
"My dogs are treated like children. They’re my whole life," she said. "I was just trying to get them home safely. I didn’t want to be flying so close to when she was due, but I have personal family issues that prevented me from leaving Florida sooner. What was I supposed to do?"
On Wednesday, New Jersey resident Robert Magnacca called the Tampa Bay Times trying to contact Van Atter. He wants to adopt or buy one of the famous puppies for his girlfriend’s birthday.
"I thought it would be a great story," he said.
Van Atter later took his number and said she’d think about it.