Lo­cals sus­pi­cious of sup­port an­i­mals

South Florida Sun-Sentinel (Sunday) - - Opinion - By Fred Grimm

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.

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