The author, Lisa McElroy, and her support dog, Louis (Photo: Lisa McElroy)
Yesterday, Yahoo Travel published a confessional story by a traveler with a fake emotional support dog, who claimed that everybody else is faking it, too. Writer Lisa McElroy — who has a legitimate support animal — sounds off on the very controversial topic.
I spend a lot of my time as a travel writer dealing with the haters, responding to the fakers, and shaking it off.
Here’s why: My job requires me to fly. A lot. I love to travel. A lot. I have always been the kind of person who refused to let fear stand in my way of doing anything.
But I also am a person living with a serious anxiety disorder: a psychiatric disability that tends to rear its ugly head in airplane turbulence.
For many years, I took heavy meds before flying. Nowadays, when I have a long haul to Italy or Africa or Chile, I still take Ambien to sleep the flight away (no, I haven’t had any Ambien “incidents”). But when I’m on a domestic flight, I have something even better.
I have an emotional support dog.
His name is Louis. He’s a 20-pound French bulldog. I chose him specifically because he was the calmest, friendliest puppy in his litter. When we’re in the air, he sits quietly on my lap. He does like to look out the window, but usually he just sleeps. Once he farted, but that is the very worst that has ever happened. It was pretty funny, actually. The guy next to me glared at me, but not because of Louis. He thought I’d had too many beans in my chili at lunch. I gave Louis a “don’t light the plane on fire, buddy” squeeze, but I didn’t correct the angry dude. If I tried to correct every angry person I met when I traveled with Louis, I’d never get anything else done on the plane.
Woman’s best friend (Photo: Lisa McElroy)
Yes, whenever I fly with Louis, I encounter three kinds of dirty looks — not hatred exactly, but not warm fondness, either. There are the “you must be a faker, because emotional support animals are a scam” looks. There are the “you must be crazy, because only really dysfunctional people need an emotional support animal” looks. And then there are the “I don’t want to sit next to a dog/why can’t I bring my dog/you should have to buy a seat for that dog” looks.
OK. So. First. Emotional support animals are not a scam. Lots of highly functioning people like me derive a huge amount of comfort from emotional support dogs. They can make the difference between medicating or not medicating, or flying or not flying. That’s why it is federal law that airlines have to accommodate emotional support animals.
Second, there is a difference between a system that can be scammed and a system that is inherently a scam.
Alfie the Pug and a British Airways flight attendant. (Photo: Nick Morrish/British Airways)
It is definitely true that people scam the emotional support animal system. As another Yahoo! Travel writer explained, you can go online, pay someone who is officially a doctor (but probably not a very ethical one) about $100, fill out a questionnaire to which the answers are obvious (“Do you get anxious when you fly?” etc.), and get a letter within hours certifying your need for an emotional support dog, or cat, or spider, or pig. Once you have the letter, the airlines aren’t allowed to question you. As the anonymous writer said, many people go through this process so that they don’t have to pay to take their animals on board.
But just because some — even a lot — of people scam the emotional support animal system, that doesn’t mean that some people (read: me) don’t really benefit from the presence of a calm, orderly animal in flight.
Note those words: calm and orderly. Federal law is very clear that emotional support animals must not be disruptive. That’s why it was completely appropriate for U.S. Airways to remove the emotional support pig who ran around and pooped on the plane.
Should a pig be allowed as a support animal? (Photo: Thinkstock)
If that doesn’t convince you, think about it this way. Let’s say that, instead of an anxiety disorder, I had a mobility impairment. You know those carts that go around airline terminals and beep, beep, beep until you want to hit someone? Those are there for people who have trouble walking through the airport. Should we get rid of them just because some people scam the cart system and ride when they could walk? I don’t think so.
How about the argument that people who need emotional support animals must be seriously unstable? I honestly don’t have an issue answering questions about that one, because it’s ignorance that leads to prejudice. I’m a tenured professor at one of the nation’s top universities. I have been a professional writer for over 15 years. I’m the pretty-good mother of two teenage girls (I know what you’re going to say — if I weren’t already crazy, that would put me over the edge). As of this weekend, I’ve been in a stable marriage for 18 years.
But I hid my anxiety disorder from the entire world (seriously, other than my doctors, like five people knew) until recently, when I decided that “coming out” about it would help others realize that an anxiety disorder, while a big deal to me, didn’t have to be to them. I’m a case in point. Sure, I have panic attacks (not just on planes, but pretty much everywhere), but I cope really well. I have excellent doctors. I am incredibly lucky to live in the 21st century, where medications can help me stabilize. And I have an emotional support dog. It’s awesome. In fact when I contacted my editor about writing this piece, she was surprised to learn why I was calling.
So why did I hide it? Because of the looks I get when people don’t understand and think I’m crazy (whatever that means). In fact, unlike the other Yahoo Travel writer, who told people that he had a psychiatric disability so he didn’t have to admit he was a scammer, I used to tell people that I was a scammer so that I didn’t have to tell them that I had a psychiatric disability. Not anymore. Let them see me, with my laptop and my business suit and, yes, my emotional support dog, and let them see the modern face of most mental illness.
One of San Francisco International Airport’s Wag Brigade dogs, which help beat airport stress. (Photo: FlySFO)
As for the argument that people don’t want to be next to an emotional support dog, again, I think that comes from ignorance. I think lots of people would say, “I hate circling the mall parking lot during the holiday season, looking for a parking spot” but they would never dream of saying to someone who uses a wheelchair “you shouldn’t get a spot because I don’t have one.” In fact, most people I know (and maybe I just know really good people) would offer to help that person with a mobility impairment by holding a door, or carrying a bag, or waiting for the next regular bathroom stall instead of grabbing the big one right up front. I truly believe that, once people understand that most mental illness is highly functioning mental illness — and that they most likely know people who live with it and have happy lives — they will want to reach out to us, too. This simple courtesy in the form of tolerance and respect can make a huge difference in the life of a person who lives with anxiety or depression or bipolar disorder.
So, this week, as you’re reading this, I’m on a flight to Florida. I’m working at both my jobs there: going to a law conference and covering some warm and sunny destinations for Yahoo Travel. Louis is sitting on my lap, looking out the window. I know the plane isn’t going to crash, but if I start worrying about it, I’ll give Louis a squeeze, receive a kiss, and hope no farts come out of either one of us.
Next time you see an animal on a plane? Tell his owner to have a great trip. Who knows, you might make a new friend — canine or human.
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