Color & Control:

Noah’s Ark in the air

By Caroline Tapp-McDougall

At 40,000 feet, there is lots to consider when it comes to the safety and comfort of both animals and people. But, is change afoot when it comes to travelling with our furry and feathered friends?

Are the days of passengers being allowed to bring their emotional support animals onto the airplane numbered? It’s been proposed in the US (and soon to follow in Canada), that only specially trained dogs who qualify as service animals, should be allowed in the passenger cabin at no charge. No more emotional support ducks, parakeets, miniature horses or the like.

According to airline writer David Koenig, who recently filed a story for Associated Press, “Airlines could ban emotional support animals including untrained dogs, cats, and more exotic companions such as pigs, pheasants, rabbits, and snakes” in the coming months. In their defence, airlines say that the number of support animals has grown dramatically in recent years and they’re lobbying the Transportation Department to crack down on what they consider a scam—passengers who call their pets emotional support animals to avoid paying the fees to bring them along (generally more than $100 each way).

And, not surprisingly, advocacy groups for people living with disabilities are on board. Koenig quotes Albert Rizz, founder of advocacy group, My Blind Spot, who says, “This is a wonderful step in the right direction for people like myself who are dependent and reliant on legitimate service animals.” Rizz feels some people “want to have the benefits of having a disability without actually losing the use of their limbs or senses just so they can take their pet with them.”

It’s also been suggested that flight attendants were behind the push to stop the out of control influx of pets on planes (up almost 50% in the past few years). “The days of Noah’s Ark in the air are hopefully coming to an end,” says Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants. Nelson claims some of her union’s members have been bitten, scratched and frightened by untrained pets and wants skies to be safer and healthier for everyone. And, of course, there’s little if any consideration to the other passengers who may have allergies, be afraid or uncomfortable around dogs—or other animals for that matter.

As one lawyer speaking for a passenger who required plastic surgery after he was mauled by an overly anxious large dog that the airline had placed in the middle seat next to him, suggested to the Washington Post, “There are competing interests. Obviously, anybody with the need for a service animal should have one,” he said. “But the other 99 per cent of people on the plane would also like to rest easy being able to know that … this animal is trained to go into such a stressful situation.”

Veterans groups also sided with the airlines, arguing that a boom in other animals on board threatened their ability to fly safely with properly trained working service dogs. In fact, according to Koenig’s article last year, more than 80 North American veterans and disability groups endorsed banning untrained emotional support animals in airline cabins. On the opposing side, people with emotional support animals claim their anxiety and stress levels will be impacted if a ban takes place—numbers of pets in the air with these folks now add up to hundreds of thousands.

For all sides, pressing questions remain. Should emotional support animals require similar special training to guide dogs? Does a dog who is onboard to help with psychiatric needs qualify as a service animal, and is a medical professional’s note enough? And, what if your service dog happens to be a pit bull, currently a banned breed on Delta Airlines? Earlier than usual check in, ongoing questions, frequent disrespect from other passengers and completion of “pet onboard” paperwork 48 hours in advance are also noted barriers to flying that support dog owners are peeved about.

Is this worth all the fuss? Should Betty’s golden doodle be allowed to sit next to you on the plane if he’s going to give you anxiety or an asthma attack? Is there a difference between a working guide dog and Harry’s therapy parrot? What do you think? Tweet us at #gonetothedogs.

Caroline Tapp-McDougall is the Executive Director of The Canadian Abilities Foundation and Managing Editor of Abilities.

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