Locals suspicious of support animals
Life in South Florida engenders a certain skepticism. Perhaps, it comes from watching too many young women park Italian sports cars in handicap spaces, hang placards of questionable provenance on rear view mirrors, emerge effortlessly from low-slung cars that able-bodied me couldn’t escape without the assistance of a forklift, then stride purposefully away on six-inch stilettos.
Without a hint of impairment. A wiggle, maybe, but no damn limp.
We live among unabashed, unembarrassed scammers. No other region comes close to their ingenuity in defrauding Medicare, peddling worthless stocks, contriving Ponzi schemes, luring callers to
$5-a-minute psychics, attracting hapless addicts to money-sucking sober homes. After all, this is a place where, after stealing swampland from the Seminoles, we hawked it sight unseen to gullible Yankees.
Just last week, the Florida Attorney General busted the company behind the ubiquitous “your computer has a virus” telephone scam. Most assumed the “Microsoft technician” posers were calling from Asia. Turns out, they were in Sunrise.
So, don’t think you’re fooling us with the service doggie spiel. Don’t bother flashing that official looking wallet card attesting Fido’s medical certification as an “emotional support animal.” Won’t sell. Not in Fort Lauderdale, a town whose springtime economy once depended on college kids flaunting fake IDs.
The manager of Whole Foods may be cowed by the prospect of litigation, but he knows — and we know — that the French bulldog slobbering over the organic arugula ain’t ever seen the inside of a doctor’s office. Yet, they’re everywhere, as if South Florida suffers from an epidemic of acute emotional neediness. In grocery carts. Roaming the halls of no-pets-allowed condo buildings. At the next table in your favorite restaurant. Growling at you from the window seat on the flight to New York. (Admittedly, a certain Miramar-based economy airline accommodates emotional support animals by providing just enough leg room for your average Chihuahua.)
Occasionally, these creatures are decked out like crossing guards, sporting orange or red or — I swear — hot pink “emotional support animal” vests. They’re available from Amazon at $21.99 (free delivery for Prime members) and include cards to offer anyone unfamiliar with “the laws and questions surrounding service dogs.”
Except emotional support dogs aren’t service dogs. Service dogs, according to the Americans with Disabilities Act, must be specially trained to perform specific services for persons with specific disabilities. And service dogs aren’t pets. That bejeweled Shih Tzu relieving himself in Aisle One is no service dog.
But, indeed, he may be “certified,” with a vest, patch, collar tag and wallet card purchased online. Service Dogs Central, a legitimate operation, lists 17 sham sites that peddle such paraphernalia and “do nothing to verify the dog’s training or the owner’s disability.” Just fill out a form, pay up to
$200 and Fido’s “certified.”
Almost any owner with any mutt qualifies. One registration site, Service Dogs America, “recognizes that most every person in America may have some form of disability. Most persons rely on their dog to assist them in many different ways. Ensure your dog will be allowed to accompany you wherever you need to go by clearly identifying him/her as a service dog with a Service Dog Identification Package provided by Service Dogs America.”
The industry depends on vaguely written regulations in the federal Fair Housing Act, and the Air Carrier Access Act, while hoping no one notices that owners must provide documentation from a “licensed mental health professional” (not the family doc) who attests that they are currently under treatment for a recognized mental disorder.
Even that may be hooey. Molly Crossman, a Yale psychology researcher, published a report in
reviewing medical evidence that might support the notion that animal companions counter psychological distress. “The clearest conclusion in the field is that we cannot yet draw clear conclusions,” she told Vox last fall. “A lot of people have this impression that [the evidence] is very well established and we really know that [animals] are beneficial. But what is surprising is that we actually don’t know that at all.”
Something else people might not know. It’s illegal under Florida law to misrepresent your pet as a service animal. Meanwhile, the legislature is considering a bill this session that would require owners of emotional support animals to have “written documentation prepared by a health care practitioner which verifies that the individual has a disability or a disability-related need, has been under the practitioner’s care, and that the emotional support animal is needed.”
Wait outside Fido. The jig is up.
Psychology The Journal of Clinical
Fred Grimm (@grimm_fred or [email protected]), has worked as a journalist in South Florida since 1976.