Crowds, long lines, delays, lost luggage: Navigating a busy airport can be stressful in the best of circumstances—and it’s even worse during the busy holiday season. Luckily, at a number of airports nationwide, you can now find various animals on hand to reduce stress and anxiety, boost happiness—and, in some cases, even keep us safer.
At my local airport SFO, LiLou the pig greets weary travelers and calms nerves by offering snorts and selfies. She’s just one of about 300 therapy animals (including dogs, cats and rabbits) taking part in the airport’s SPCA Animal Assisted Therapy Program. But LiLou is special not just because of her adorable costumes and painted hooves, but also because she is the very first pig greeter!
How sweet is this: Superman star Henry Cavill was recently photographed at LAX with his dog Kal-El wearing a blue vest with the words: “Working. Do not pet. Emotional Support Dog.” And it’s also well-known that Ryan Gosling flies with his dog George, a registered Emotional Support Animal, or ESA.
Despite some of the bad press surrounding ESAs (did you hear about the woman who caused a stir by bringing her therapy kangaroo into a McDonald’s in Wisconsin?), as animal lovers, we know how strong that bond with our animals can be and that yes, being with our animal can calm us. And thanks to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Air Carrier Access Act, ESAs, like traditional service dogs, are allowed in airline cabins. (By law, ESAs are also allowed in apartments that typically turn away pets.) The law does allow for common sense to prevail, however, so if you plan on taking a hyper goat or a 500-pound pig into the economy section on your next flight, the airline will probably turn you both away.
Though ESAs have been “on the books” for several years, more people today—not just celebrities—are signing their animals up as ESAs than ever before.
Here’s a closer look how ESAs differ from the typical service/therapy animals we’re used to seeing:
Service animals: Service animals, predominantly dogs, are professionally trained to perform major life tasks for someone with a disability; seeing-eye dogs are one common example. But miniature horses—which are highly intelligent, can live for 30 years and are very gentle out in the big, wide world—make great seeing-eye and service animals, too. Another type of service animal is the Psychiatric Service Animal, or PSA. PSAs assist individuals with mental health disabilities, like PTSD. I read in the news once about a PSA parrot (worn around town in a cagelike backpack) that recognizes the onset of a psychotic episode and calms his owner down with words. (Wow!) Goats, ducks and monkeys have also been known to be trained as helpful service animals. Ferrets and boa constrictors, too, can apparently recognize the onset of a seizure so their human can take their meds on time.
Emotional Support Animals: These animals, usually companion animals/pets, give therapeutic benefits to the owner through love and affection. They do not receive training but are prescribed by a mental health professional in a letter. This letter, which explains the mental illness being mitigated by the animal, then allows the ESA to fly with their person or the right to live in “no pet” housing situations. All types of species qualify as ESAs: cats, dogs, bunnies, miniature pigs, alpacas, snakes and others.
In her article in The New Yorker, Patricia Marx took an interesting (albeit humorous) look at the controversy surrounding ESAs and the rising number of people now taking their often disruptive animals everywhere for emotional support. Though I believe ESAs have true value, like helping extremely nervous fliers, one quote in the story stood out to me. In it, she quoted Peter Singer, author of Animal Liberation. He said, “Animals can get as depressed as people do [so] there is sometimes an issue about how well people with mental illnesses can look after their animals … If it’s really so difficult for you to be without your animal, maybe you don’t need to go to that restaurant or to the Frick Museum.” Something to think about.
Therapy animals: These animals, usually dogs but sometimes cats and mini horses, provide emotional support to adults and children in hospitals, hospice programs and nursing homes. The best therapy animals are “good citizens” that enjoy socializing—like this beautiful white (and deaf!) sheltie that just loves serving those in need. Therapy animals also participate in “animal-assisted” therapy, such as the horses that provide equine therapy to kids with learning difficulties.
What do you think about the rise in popularity of Emotional Support Animals?