Emotional Support Animals: Pet-Owner Scam?

In 2014 Patricia Marx wrote humorously (New Yorker) of a unique undercover experiment. What would happen if she pretended to have an anxiety disorder that enabled her to have a variety of types of emotional support animals (ESA’s)? Animals she would take around town with her, one at a time, to see who’d let them as a pair be customers. And by the way, we’re not talking dogs and cats here.

Emotional support animals are a different breed, excuse the pun, from service animals, for which there are stricter guidelines. Then again, people even try to scam regarding the latter, says Hal Herzog, PhD, Psychology Today:

In 2015, the Department of Justice issued a statement of concern over the growth of phony on-line service animal certification and registration documents: ‘These documents do not convey any rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Department of Justice does not recognize them as proof that the dog is a service animal.’ When I asked a Justice Department official about these internet service animal registries, she replied ‘They are frauds.’

FYI, Herzog further breaks down the laws and governing bodies regarding service and emotional support animals at the link provided above. If people follow the rules, ESA’s and/or service animals can be a valuable therapeutic aid.

If people don’t follow the rules, animals can be tools of a scam perpetrated for the owner’s gain of a different kind. The reasons some pet owners want ESA’s, for instance: “…they don’t want to leave their pets home alone, or they don’t want to have to hire dog-walkers, or they don’t want their pets to have to ride in a plane’s cargo hold,” etc., states Marx.

At any rate, Marx had no significant problems using her fake anxiety to get the ESA credentials she wanted:

…(A)ll you need is a therapist type who will vouch for your mental un-health. Don’t have one? Enter ’emotional-support animal’ into Google and take your pick among hundreds of willing professionals. Through a site called ESA Registration of America, I found a clinical social worker in California who, at a cost of a hundred and forty dollars, agreed to evaluate me over the phone to discuss the role of Augustus, the snake, in my life. To prepare for the session, I concocted a harrowing backstory: When I was six, I fell into a pond and almost drowned. There was a snake in the water that I grabbed on to just before I was rescued by my father, and, ever since, I’d found comfort in scaly vertebrates…

The ESA credentials, in fact, were obtained for each of her “five un-cuddly, non-nurturing animals”—snake, pig, turtle, turkey, alpaca.

As Marx found out in her experiment, few business owners actually know what to do with ESA’s but tend to suspect they’re supposed to accept them. Thus, all letter-accompanied pets—ESA’s as well as service animals—along with their humans are often treated equally. Even if the animals are viewed skeptically or as a potential annoyance they’re accepted into restaurants and stores.

This is significant, as, after all, “One person’s emotional support can be another person’s emotional trauma,” states Marx.

Last year Marc Philippe Eskenazi, also at the New Yorker, pretty much replicated Marx’s study, and you can see the related video at this link. Like Marx, the documents obtained from his online therapist allowed him to be accepted with his unusual ESA’s in various New York settings.

To maximize his experience, when alone with his animals he went a step further: could his fake ESA’s offer talk therapy while they’re at it?  I think you already know the answer. Watch Eskenazi’s footage anyway.

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