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’No! We are not letting your emotional-support wombat on the plane!’ | Column

Nitwits have tried to board commercial flights with emotional-support ducks, turkeys, non-frozen Florida iguanas, flatulent pot-bellied pigs and a freaking peacock, writes Carl Hiaasen.
Peacocks and peahens at a home on 26th Avenue N in the Disston Heights neighborhood of St Petersburg. [Tampa Bay Times]
Peacocks and peahens at a home on 26th Avenue N in the Disston Heights neighborhood of St Petersburg. [Tampa Bay Times]
Published Jan. 27

Regulators are finally cracking down on passengers who bring household pets on commercial flights and claim they are “emotional-support animals.”

Under proposed rules unveiled recently, airlines would no longer have to accept rabbits, pigs, cats and other untrained critters that are supposedly essential to the psychological well-being of their human owners.

The scam has become a headache -- and liability risk -- for airlines. Innocent passengers and flight attendants have been bitten or otherwise injured in the main cabin by roaming animals, not all of which exhibit control of their digestive functions.

In recent years, assorted nitwits have tried to board commercial flights with emotional-support ducks, turkeys, non-frozen Florida iguanas, flatulent pot-bellied pigs and a freaking peacock. In some cases, they've actually made it onto the plane.

Carl Hiaasen

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, "Disability advocates have voiced concerns that the use of these unusual service animals on aircraft erodes the public's trust and confidence in service animals."

No kidding. It makes a charade of an important benefit designed for those with real needs.

Airlines have struggled to adjust their policies to deal with the huge surge in passengers with emotional-support animals, mostly dogs and cats. The government requires no special training for such pets, but the new DOT rules would change that.

If approved, they would limit the definition of "service animal" to cover only canines that are professionally trained to perform tasks for persons with documented physical or mental disabilities.

That's unwelcome news for the many non-disabled dog owners who've been buying "Service" or "Emotional Support" animal vests ($13 to $35 on Amazon), scamming medical notes out of gullible therapists and appearing at the airport presenting their family pooches as legitimate service dogs.

It's an epidemic that the flight attendants' union and Airlines for America, the major industry trade group, have been warning about for a long time.

Once, waiting to board a flight from West Palm Beach to New York, I counted 11 vest-wearing dogs, most of them suspiciously small and manifesting no special training whatsoever.

One of the owners took his barking bogus service animal to the men's room to let it pee -- I'm dead serious -- in a urinal. The dog broke away from him and immediately bit a young boy, whose father called the police.

After our plane took off (minus the biter), a woman sitting behind me headed for the lavatory toting her football-sized "service" companion. The flight attendant stopped her in the aisle but gave up after the woman started fussing.

"I can't leave him alone! He can't be alone!" she yipped, referring to the perplexed, heavily sedated hairball she was holding.

Many frequent flyers have creepier animal encounters.

I own a big Labrador that, if garbed in an official-looking vest, could easily pass for an actual service dog. His skill set peaks at fetching a palm frond, but he's friendly, doesn't bark and wouldn't need a doggy Valium to get through a long flight.

He does okay in the cargo hold of a 737, but nobody who loves their pet is thrilled about transporting it that way. I get that. Also, cargo-class costs money, which is a big reason Amazon sells so many Emotional Support Animal vests.

They do not fit on snakes or birds, and they don't belong on many of the other animals now wearing them. Just because a pet makes you feel better -- and don't they all? -- it's not automatically entitled to ride with you in coach, or hang out at the Cinnabon on Concourse D.

The public has 60 days to comment on the DOT's proposed revisions. Interestingly, they extend existing flight privileges beyond qualified dogs to a mammal you seldom find in the TSA line: miniature horses.

These little dudes aren't merely cute: They can learn to do specific tasks for owners with disabilities. The government hasn't officially recognized them as service animals, but they're allowed in airports and planes if they're well-trained, housebroken and not too large.

I've never been on a flight with an equine, or crossed paths with one in any airport -- including Miami International, where you see just about everything (especially at the urinals).

But compared to a python or a peacock or a dog that snaps at children, a horse seems way more plausible as a legit service companion.

In case you were wondering, the current rules do allow airlines to turn away passengers accompanied by reptiles, rodents, ferrets, spiders and (I swear) sugar gliders, a small species of flying opossum.

No offense, but if you can't board an airplane without the therapeutic encouragement of your opossum, you need to get your crazy ass into a rental car.

Carl Hiaasen is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers may write to him at: The Miami Herald, 3511 NW 91st Ave., Miami, Fla., 33172.

© 2020 Miami Herald. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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