Opinion: Snakes on a plane for emotional support?


WASHINGTON — When next you shoehorn yourself into one of America’s ever-shrinking airline seats, you might encounter a new wrinkle in the romance of air travel. You might be amused, or not, to discover a midsize — say, 7-feet long — boa constrictor named Oscar coiled contentedly, or so you hope, in the seat next to you. Oscar is an “emotional-support animal.” He belongs to the person in the seat on the other side of him, and he is a manifestation of a new item, or the metastasizing of an old item, on America’s menu of rights.

The rapid recent increase of emotional-support animals in airplane cabins is an unanticipated consequence of a federal law passed with the best of intentions, none of which pertained to Dexter the peacock. In 2013, the Department of Housing and Urban Development told providers of public housing that the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 mandates “reasonable accommodations” for persons who require “assistance animals.”

The Air Carrier Access Act of 1986 allows access to animals trained to provide emotional support. Federal guidelines say airlines must allow even emotional-support animals that have a potential to “offend or annoy” passengers, but that airlines are allowed to discriminate against some “unusual” animals.

Yet a New York photographer and performance artist named Ventiko recently was denied the right to board her Newark-to-Los Angeles flight with her “emotional-support peacock,” for whom Ventiko had bought a ticket. So, if Oscar’s owner says Oscar provides support, and the owner lawyers up …

In contemporary America, where whims swiftly become necessities en route to becoming government-guaranteed entitlements, it is difficult to draw lines. Besides, lines are discouraged lest someone (or some species?) be “stigmatized” by being “marginalized.” The line JetBlue has drawn dehumanizes snakes. Yes, they are not technically human, but don’t quibble.

JetBlue is attempting to fly between the Scylla of passengers discomforted by a duck waddling down the aisle and the Charybdis of animal advocates who are hypersensitive to speciesism, aka anti-pet fascism. JetBlue says that “unusual animals” such as “snakes, other reptiles, ferrets, rodents and spiders” are verboten, even as emotional-support animals.

Delta experienced a nearly one-year doubling of what it delicately calls “incidents” (urinating, defecating, biting). “Farm poultry,” hedgehogs and creatures with tusks are unwelcome on Delta, which is going to be alert regarding the booming market for forged documents attesting to emotional neediness.

Now, let us, as the lawyers say, stipulate a few things. Quadrupeds, and no-peds like Oscar, have done a lot less damage to the world than have bipeds, and often are better mannered than many of today’s human air travelers. Animals can be comforting to anyone and can be therapeutic to the lonely, the elderly with symptoms of senescence, and soldiers and others suffering post-traumatic stress disorder. Studies have purported to show that people living with pets derive myriad benefits, including lower cholesterol.

But the proliferation of emotional-support animals suggests that a cult of personal fragility is becoming an aspect of the quest for the coveted status of victim. The cult is especially rampant in colleges and universities. There, puppies are deployed to help students cope with otherwise unbearable stresses, such as those caused by final exams or rumors of conservatism.

Writes for The Washington Post.



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