Emotional support animals: has America's 'epidemic' gone too far?

Emotional support animals, or ESAs, have exploded across the US in recent years, with rising numbers of pet owners getting their animals certified online. Unlike in the UK, ESAs have legal status in the US on a tier below traditional service animals, but the backlash has begun – with critics complaining the system is being abused by regular pet owners who want to take their animals into unsuitable public spaces. The Guardian’s Richard Sprenger – animal lover but pet sceptic – meets ESA owners and their animals across North America.
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Right, should I shut this before
he tries to get out?
Emotional support animals, known as ESAs,
have exploded across America in recent years.
With controversy never far away.
Dexter the peacock, an emotional support animal, had a ticket but United wouldn’t get him on board.
Every time a peacock appears in an airport
or a hamster gets flushed down the toilet,
the row around their use ignites again.
I’m not going to let them take my goat.
ESAs are protected by law but critics
argue the system is being exploited by pet owners
without genuine mental health problems.
That’s just a bit of velcro, right?
Now with airlines and stores across the US drawing up their own rules around animal access,
has the rise of the emotional
support animal gone too far?
So Wally is going to be this long.
Or are the more exotic animals sensationalising
and diluting a growing
solution to mental health conditions?
The real epidemic is the mental health
problem in America.
Joe Henney’s ESA is one such animal.
Hello Joe.
How you doing?
A four-year-old American
alligator rescued from Disney World in 2016,
months after a bigger gator had attacked
and killed a two-year-old boy.
That’s about his meal size.
When was the last time he ate?
About three months ago.
Three months?
Well, he’s eaten once in three months.
What did he eat? A cow?
No, he just ate two chicks.
Well, you’ll never gonna grow to be 15ft
without a better appetite.
I really thought I would be more nervous
but because he’s so calm…
That’s how we started tv shows back then.
Joe is no stranger to the camera, having presented his own hunting and fishing show 20 years ago on local TV.
I would not recognise you.
Back then, it was all about me.
I was always into animals,
I loved hunting, I loved fishing.
I wasn’t an emotional person back then,
I was a very selfish,
‘all for me’ type of a person.
I never thought I’d ever go to heaven…
You know, it didn’t take much
to push me off the edge to fight.
We were walking down the street and I said:
‘I’m gonna knock out ten people with ten shots.’
the third or fourth person out
came through
and I reached up and I hit him…
when I hit him, I knew the sound was different
because I broke his neck.
He lived but he is now today even a paraplegic
What I did … I destroyed
his life, I destroyed him.
Just because I was cocky.
And I went into a real bad depression.
I went to the doctor about it and they wanted to give me
antidepressant pills and when I took one pill
and I hated how it made me feel.
So I didn’t take more, I called them and said,
‘I am not taking this pill’.
Stroking him is kind of addictive.
While he is a little more exceptional
than most gators, he’s really super laid back,
but I guess because the way we’ve
handled him, he knows when somebody needs a hug.
Buddy you are cold, ain’t you?
When I went to the doctors, they said,
How are you getting on with depression?
Wally the gator.
They said, ‘are you serious?
OK, that’s better than any pill that I can give you.’
Why don’t you get Wally registered
as a support alligator?
I said, are you nuts?
An alligator? How’s going to register
Wally as an alligator?
‘Hey, didn’t he help you through depression?’
‘Well, that’s emotional support.’
He loves being petted,
he loves giving hugs.
Because he’s a wild animal, it only takes
one moment where he is misbehaving
and something really potentially quite
serious could happen.
He literally could tear a foot off me.
People have been
bitten by service dogs.
Service dogs!
Very well-trained!
Most ESAs are neither as unusual
or as placid as Wally
and their presence on university campuses
has been at the frontline of the debate,
with critics arguing they are nothing
more than a crutch for young people
at a time when they should be outside
their comfort zone.
When I registered my emotional support animals,
they said I was their first guinea pig,
so I was kind of their
trial for guinea pigs…
You were the guinea pig guinea pig.
Do you worry at all that, because
your guinea pigs are at home
that you are not pushing
yourself outside of your house enough,
to battle against the anxiety issues you have?
I have so much schoolwork
that I am a lot of the times in here,
but what I do is, the people that I know,
I offer: ‘Hey, why don’t you come over,
we can work on school work together’.
It can also help them because I do have
another friend who has anxiety
and she loves the guinea pigs.
Is it working?
I definitely think so, absolutely.
If I am having a really bad day, I’ll just hold
her and her squeaks just make me smile,
like things like this, it just calms you down.
Hi. How’s it going?
Oh, there we go.
It was inevitable really, wasn’t it?
Thank you, yeah.
I’ve just been urinated upon
by a guinea pig…
Oh, that’s fun!
Would Corvo like that?
Will he be upset?
OK, hi Corvo.
Are you aware of the sort of controversies
around emotional support animals?
There’s a lot of people that will fake
in order to have an animal with them because
there’s a lot of apartments around here
that don’t allow any form of animals.
I am going to need you to move, sweetie.
Oh my goodness!
Oh Corvo!
Me managed to find the corner.
Problems like this are exactly the reason
why a lot of housing doesn’t allow animals in it.
Yeah, most universities don’t want to risk it either.
Damage like this seems a small
price to pay for your mental wellbeing.
Yeah, it’s … I am more than willing to cover that
at the end of the semester,
it was honestly a mistake.
Naughty Corvo.
Despite the potential for animal-related accidents,
a recently opened pet-friendly dorm means even non-ESA animals have a place on the Lock Haven campus.
We have three hamsters, one cat
and five rabbits.
Wow, OK.
If you asked me 10 years ago,
I would have been absolutely, ‘there’s no way!’
Everybody’s vying for the same group of
students to get into higher education.
Anything you can do to make your college
attractive to students is going to work.
Right, yeah.
Do you know, I’ve not handled
a hamster for a number of years…
Has anybody dropped her?
What’s the greatest height she’s fallen from?
As of right now, she hasn’t really fallen yet.
OK, right, so the pressure is on for it not to happen.
I wanted to get an emotional
support animal but then we got this pet policy.
It’s basically the same thing,
it’s just less of an inconvenience to get it all sorted
with the disability
services and all that stuff.
Do you feel that a pet can be as good as a drug in
treating mental health problems?
I think so. I mean, with me having these animals,
it makes me think about taking care of them,
and I can’t take care of them if
I can’t take care of myself,
so this is a more natural way of having
those happy hormones around.
It’s not just in the US where ESAs are triggering debate.
We’ve had newlyweds in here spending their night…
In this one here.
OK, I might not have this room.
Is it haunted?
Absolutely, yeah.
In Canada, Toronto native Bill Steel ran into trouble when he relocated to a former jail in New Brunswick
which he now runs as an Airbnb.
I mean, they say prison’s
a bit like a hotel but this one isn’t, is it?
Although it is!
It is.
This is Mama.
This is Deputy, Deputy goat,
and this is Princess.
Hey Princess!
Hey Princess!
Why goats?
It was always my dream,
with my son, to have goats and I got the goats.
There is a need for them, which is to deal
with my depression.
Part of that is obviously losing my son.
He’s with me all the time, yeah.
I had to make funeral arrangements
three or four times for my son…
Before he died?
…they said,
‘we don’t know if he’s going to make it to the next day,
you have to talk to him about
where he wants to be buried.’
Where do you want to be buried, Billy?
You want to be buried here,
you want to be buried there?
Do you want to be cremated?
Do you want to be … whatever.
No parent should ever have to do that.
I feel I died the day my son died.
Does that thing work?
You know, when people ask that,
they get an automatic drive in it, that’s my rule.
Bill took me on a tour of
Dorchester, the village he now calls home
but with which he has an ongoing legal dispute.
They say his goats are farm animals
and as such, are banned from the village.
I’ve had a lot of support in the
community for the goats,
I haven’t had anybody that lives
here ever say anything bad about them.
Really, nobody?
Nobody, nobody ever.
That’s the municipal office right there.
So the problem is stemming from that office there?
Right there.
Which is very close to your property.
It’s right in my parking lot.
Have you read these documents?
I agree with most of these documents.
Basically, it says,
he’s got three goats.
This was served to me in person
by a sheriff.
Oh, right.
Is this piece of paper all you feel you
need to win the court case?
It says: Mr. Steele has been suffering from
resistant major depression for the past two years,
his goats have been beneficial
to his mental health and I recommend
that he keeps them as emotional support animals.
And that’s signed by your physician.
My physician, yeah.
I am not giving up my goats.
And I think the doctors
and the people in society are saying,
hey, if it helps him, why not?
same with cannabis and stuff like that, does it help?
I don’t know but a lot of
people say they are better,
that’s good enough for me.
That’s good enough for me.
Much of the anger around the explosion
of ESAs has been directed online,
where multiple companies have sprung up
offering certification
that critics suggest is nothing more than a
money-making scam.
I travelled to Wisconsin to meet Prairie Conlan.
He’s good for an emotional support dog.
Clinical manager for one such company,
So I am going to go through the process of registering my mythical emotional support animal,
So you can definitely see what it looks like.
Straight away you have to give your
payment information…
Just like when services are rendered,
when you go to the therapist office or the doctor,
you pay right when you start.
If I am trying to get my pet certified,
it’s quite easy to know which type of answer will get
the response you’re after.
You’re going to have people trying to game the system,
they try to game every system.
How many pets has CertaPet certified?
We average about 1.2 million users per month,
less than half a percent of that
actually get an emotional support animal letter.
There is no doubt that emotional support
animals have exploded in recent years,
some have labelled it an epidemic.
Are there people making money from it?
Is there something uncomfortable
about the two things there?
Well, for sure.
Not only is it horrible for the clients
that actually need it,
it’s horrible for me when I’ve been threatened
‘we’re going to get your license,
you’re a terrible person’, I mean … terrible things.
And I’ve thought, do I want
to continue to do this?
And the thing is, every single time the
answer for me has come back yes.
Prarie took me up to meet her horse, True,
at a stables nearby.
Look horses scan you,
they see what you really have
and they’re reading you
because you know we have different energies.
Don’t stand behind a horse,
I know that much.
Can you tell me why mental health
is so important to you?
I’ve always had an advocate’s heart,
I like to stand up for people that are different.
You know, being an adopted kid
in a small town
and then siblings of different races
that were adopted.
We were always different.
For me, I always
felt like I could stand up for myself.
People that have mental disabilities, anxiety, depression, they can’t stand up for themselves a lot of times.
We don’t need to cheat them out of an experience
just by quickly getting them in and out
of an office and adding to the opioid addiction.
Something as ‘silly’ as being able to sit with
your dog and take your dog on a plane.
I see it change lives
everyday. That’s a pretty amazing feeling so…
There may be limited scientific
evidence that animal-assisted therapy actually works.
But the anecdotal
evidence is firmly in their favour.
He was only that long when we got him.
I want our kids to see me hold that alligator.
With the stigma around mental health
finally being confronted and emotional support animals
offering many people a
genuine alternative to medication,
a compromise needs to be struck between
the rights of the individual,
those of society as a whole
and the animals themselves.
Oh my gosh.
Oh, he’s just so adorable.
We need something like this to give us
attention and that was huge to me.
He puts a smile on your face, doesn’t he?
Yes, he does.

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