Now, Florida lawmakers are converging on the latest front in the war on fake service animals: apartments and condo buildings.
Sen. Manny Diaz, a Hialeah Republican, wants to crack down on people who claim their pet is an emotional support animal to get out of paying pet deposits — or get into buildings that don’t allow pets.
“We’ve had a problem where folks have just started to claim these things,” Diaz said Monday. “The most egregious I’ve seen, and I think we all saw it in South Florida on TV, was a gentleman claiming his alligator was an emotional support animal."
(The gator, Wally, was at an assisted-living facility in Pennsylvania, not Florida.)
Emotional support pets are not to be confused with service animals, which are trained to carry out specific tasks and are protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act.
But emotional support animals do have rights under the Fair Housing Act and the Air Carrier Access Act, and people have abused those laws to get out of paying pet deposit fees and airline pet charges.
Often, owners are armed with a dubious certification from an online doctor claiming they need the animal for their emotional support. Numerous websites offer the certificates for as little as $22.
“People go on the internet, they find a psychologist or a therapist or whatever, never met the person, and for $99 get to claim mental illness, and the next thing you know you have a mental support animal,” an exasperated Sen. Kevin Rader, D-Delray Beach said Monday. “You don’t even do it in your name. You can do it in someone else’s name. You never meet the person.”
Senate Bill 1128 takes aim at those dubious certifications by requiring Floridians to instead be certified by a real doctor that they see for other physical or emotional ailments.
“If I wanted to claim an emotional support animal that’s an iguana and I went on the internet, I could not get that certified," Diaz said, "because it has to be a health care practitioner that you’re already seeing for other things.”
The fake certifications have become a “huge problem” for apartment and condominium mangers who want to verify that a potential tenant doesn’t have to pay a pet fee, according to Amanda Gill, government affairs director for the Florida Apartment Association.
“Oftentimes they’ll present a letter that they literally got by paying $90 on the internet,” Gill said. “Unfortunately, there’s no way for our onsite folks to actually verify the authenticity of that letter. Oftentimes, when you call the person that’s listed, they don’t answer the phone.”
Rader said he hears about it frequently from constituents in condo communities.
“This is one of the first things they talk about, is how all these animals are on their premises and are getting around the (Americans with Disabilities Act) act,” Rader said. “It’s completely bogus, and we need to root the fraud out of it.”
The bill would allow apartment managers to ask the doctor if they wrote a letter, not why the tenant needs the animal. Falsifying the certifications would be a second-degree misdemeanor, with a potential 60-day jail sentence and a $500 fine.
On Monday, the bill passed its first committee stop, with bipartisan support and the support of the Humane Society. It has two more before getting to the Senate floor. A similar bill in the House, House Bill 721, has yet to be heard.
Diaz cautioned afterward that the bill likely wouldn’t have an affect on how often you see pets on airplanes, and enforcing it would still be difficult.
A dog owner himself, he said the bill should help people with real disabilities who have been unfairly tarnished by bad actors.
“You don’t want to turn something that’s so important to people into a joke,” he said.