So, you think your pet is an emo­tional sup­port an­i­mal?

The law on ac­cess is murky, and it de­pends heav­ily on your com­pan­ion an­i­mal’s skills, your health is­sues and your con­science.

Los Angeles Times - - THE PETS ISSUE - By Christo­pher Reynolds

Your side­kick is loyal. Clever. A great com­fort to you and oth­ers. But does that mean your an­i­mal com­pan­ion de­serves ac­cess in public places that other peo­ple’s pets don’t get?

Maybe. The law is murky and the an­swer de­pends heav­ily on your an­i­mal’s skills, your frail­ties and your con­science.

The good news for your furry friend is that over the last few decades, le­gions of peo­ple and in­sti­tu­tions world­wide have awak­ened to the many ways an­i­mals can help peo­ple, even with­out elab­o­rate train­ing. So now gov­ern­ments and busi­nesses in­creas­ingly sort com­pan­ion an­i­mals into sev­eral cat­e­gories.

The great­est lat­i­tude is given to the trained ser­vice dogs that can help peo­ple cope with blind­ness, Parkin­son’s and other chal­lenges. But many hos­pi­tals, nurs­ing homes and schools now also welcome ther­apy an­i­mals, which re­ceive less train­ing but nev­er­the­less of­fer com­fort and dis­trac­tion when vol­un­teer own­ers bring them around.

On a typ­i­cal South­ern Cal­i­for­nia weekday, you may find Gor­don, a 173-pound New­found­land dog, strolling the halls of Chil­dren’s Hos­pi­tal Los An­ge­les. A 25-pound cat named Tank pays sim­i­lar vis­its through a char­ity called Love on 4 Paws.

In Mal­ibu, five minia­ture horses (about 28 inches high at the shoul­der) stand ready to com­fort sick and trau­ma­tized chil­dren and adults through Gen­tle Carousel, a Florida-based char­ity.

But there’s another crea­ture cat­e­gory, and it has started many an ar­gu­ment in re­cent years: the emo­tional sup­port an­i­mal (ESA). These an­i­mals usu­ally don’t have elab­o­rate train­ing or ties to an in­sti­tu­tion. But they are cred­ited with calm­ing their own­ers, who take them into public spa­ces where con­ven­tional pets may be banned or lim­ited.

Num­bers on com­pan­ion an­i­mals of all kinds are hard to come by, but a JetBlue spokesman said more than 25,000 of its pas­sen­gers boarded with an­i­mals in the first 11 months of 2014. That was 11% more than all of 2013. ESA sit­u­a­tion

Ac­cord­ing to air­lines, ho­tels and gov­ern­ment agen­cies, many pet own­ers are de­scrib­ing their an­i­mals as ESAs. Some carry letters from li­censed health pro­fes­sion­als at­test­ing that they suf­fer men­tal or psy­cho­log­i­cal dis­abil­i­ties that are eased when their pets are present.

This, said Lisa Lange, Los An­ge­les-based se­nior vice pres­i­dent for Peo­ple for the Eth­i­cal Treat­ment of An­i­mals, “is a sign of how peo­ple re­gard an­i­mals to­day. They see them more as in­di­vid­u­als or fam­ily mem­bers.”

Some who work with an­i­mals, how­ever, see the ESA sit­u­a­tion as a grow­ing prob­lem be­cause of the pet own­ers who fib about their in­fir­mi­ties (or stretch the truth) to get their pets bet­ter ac­cess. “It’s not right,” said Nikki Rea­gan of Pa­cific Pal­isades, who is known in lo­cal hos­pi­tals as the owner of Tank the ther­apy cat. An­i­mals can do won­ders for peo­ple, Rea­gan said, but too many pet own­ers are gam­ing the sys­tem.

Sev­eral com­pa­nies sell ESA eval­u­a­tions, letters, reg­is­tra­tion cards and other ac­ces­sories on the Web, some­times re­quir­ing tele- phone in­ter­views, some­times op­er­at­ing on the honor sys­tem. But there is no fed­er­ally rec­og­nized reg­istry for any kind of com­pan­ion an­i­mals (ser­vice, ther­apy or emo­tional sup­port), so con­sumers should ex­pect no guar­an­tees from these ven­dors.

In fact, fed­eral laws are con­flicted when it comes to ESAs. Some, in­clud­ing the land­mark Amer­i­cans With Dis­abil­i­ties Act, give no ex­tra priv­i­leges to peo­ple with ESAs. Yet other fed­eral laws do, which is why air­lines see so many furry fliers. Travel guide­lines

The public can call the fed­er­ally funded Pa­cific ADA Cen­ter in Oak­land ( www.ada­pa­cific.org; [800] 949-4232) for guid­ance on how the laws af­fect them and their an­i­mals. But here are some gen­eral guide­lines for trav­el­ers:

Ser­vice dogs are gen­er­ally per­mit­ted in any public place that safety al­lows.

Ther­apy dogs get no par­tic­u­lar perks out­side the schools and hos­pi­tals where they work, ex­cept for minia­ture horses.

At Am­trak and the Los An­ge­les Metropoli­tan Trans­porta­tion Au­thor­ity (Metro), ESAs are treated like con­ven­tional pets.

That means they’re banned on Am­trak ex­cept for cer­tain routes in Illi­nois. On Metro trains and buses, they’re per­mit­ted in car­ri­ers so long as they don’t re­quire their own seat.

The fed­eral Air Car­rier Ac­cess Act, on the other hand, al­lows ESAs to fly in the pas­sen­ger cabin on com­mer­cial flights at no ex­tra charge, usu­ally on the pas­sen­ger’s lap or in a car­rier un­der the seat. The fed­eral Fair Hous­ing Act per­mits ESAs in con­dos or apart­ments that ban pets. That law doesn’t cover ho­tels, but many up­scale lodg­ings ac­cept ESAs, in­clud­ing some that ban con­ven­tional pets.

As for the Amer­i­cans With Dis­abil­i­ties Act, the U.S. Jus­tice Depart­ment de­cided in 2011 that it should ap­ply only to dis­abled peo­ple ac­com­pa­nied by ser­vice dogs and, “where rea­son­able,” minia­ture horses.

But un­der the ADA, busi­nesses can ask only two ques­tions when try­ing to de­ter­mine whether an an­i­mal is truly a ser­vice dog: Is it re­quired be­cause of a dis­abil­ity? What work or task has it been trained to per­form?

Fac­ing such com­plex­ity, many busi­nesses have de­cided to just say yes to ESAs.

Given all that, said Kate Buhrmas­ter, pro­ject leader for the ther­apy dog pro­gram at Chil­dren’s Hos­pi­tal Los An­ge­les, she’s not sur­prised by what she sees as a pro­lif­er­a­tion of dogs bear­ing ESA cre­den­tials.

Still, she added, “We tell all our vol­un­teers that their dogs have no spe­cial priv­i­leges out­side of the hos­pi­tal.”

Deb­bie Gar­cia-Ben­gochea, a for­mer mid­dle-school prin­ci­pal who now is ed­u­ca­tional di­rec­tor of Gen­tle Carousel, takes a sim­i­lar ap­proach with her or­ga­ni­za­tion’s 24 minia­ture horses, which typ­i­cally weigh about 70 pounds.

The horses do most of their trav­el­ing by land.

But when air travel is nec­es­sary, Gar­cia-Ben­gochea said, they don’t f ly on com­mer­cial air­craft. “They hitch rides with pri­vate pi­lot planes,” she said. christo­pher.reynolds@latimes.com

Mar­cus Yam Los An­ge­les Times

GOR­DON, a ther­apy dog, helps cheer up Theodore Ward, 5, with phys­i­cal ther­a­pist Kim Kalous­tian at Chil­dren’s Hos­pi­tal L.A.

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