On the Road: Have Dog … or Skunk … or Otter … Will Travel

Does the world really need another service animal? How emotionally fragile is our nation when our brethren can’t ride a bus or take a plane trip without their pot-belly pigs or white lab mice?

Have dog ... hit the road. A. Hinkle photo

By Annette Hinkle

I’m going to pose a rhetorical question here … Does the world really need another service animal? I mean really, how emotionally fragile is our nation when our brethren can’t get through their day, bus ride or plane trip unless they bring along everything from pot-belly pigs to white lab mice?

Case in point. A couple years ago while on a mid-winter Jitney ride from Manhattan to the East End, I noticed that the woman across the aisle had a rat-sized dog on her lap. It was calm, adorable and both the dog and the woman appeared to have a very fine life together. When the attendant came along to collect our fares and told her that it would be an extra $10 for the dog, the owner balked.

“She’s a service animal,” said the woman in a well-practiced refrain. “Would you like to see her papers?”

The attendant politely declined, and allowed the dog to ride free. For the rest of the trip, the dog snoozed comfortably and the woman totally ignored it as she flipped through her New Yorker.

I’m sorry, but I find it hard to believe that an individual who can manage the stress and turmoil of Manhattan living somehow can’t handle the anxiety of riding a comfortable bus (wifi and free snacks included) to the Hamptons without the support of a dog the size of a loaf of bread. It wasn’t the presence of the pup that got me — in fact dogs are welcome on the Jitney — but the fact that so many people are now proclaiming their pets as “service animals” and abusing the moniker just to avoid paying the lousy $10 fee.

I wondered, would that tact also work for kids?

“Yes, she’s my daughter, but she’s a service child, therefore I don’t have to pay for her seat.”

In case you didn’t see it all over the news, last week a woman attempted to board a United Airlines flight out of Newark with her service peacock. Yes, a peacock. She was told in advance three times that the bird would not be able to fly (either inside the cabin or on its own because apparently peacocks can’t). Still, she showed up with the bird and tried to plead her case.

The peacock at Newark. Ramon Colon photo.

Fortunately, the airline stood firm and a bunch of other travelers got great shots for the “Fake Media” which were predictably all over the story.

Seriously, I’m a big fan of fauna of all shapes and sizes, and despite their often unsavory reputation in fairy tales, am especially partial to the nocturnal creatures that I occasionally encounter between dusk and dawn on the East End — owls, bats and foxes. Why, just the other night while pulling into my driveway, a flutter of wings was illuminated by the headlights as a lovely tawny screech owl took flight and landed a short distance away on the low branch of an oak tree. I lingered to admire it as long as it would allow, then it flitted off into the dark night, I turned off my headlights and went inside.

Seeing that owl exerted a calming influence on my psyche and lightened my soul, but never once did I consider capturing said owl so I could bring it along on my next plane trip — for comfort, you understand.

The problem with this proliferation of service animals is that people are abusing the privilege and certification is often a total scam. Just go online and search “service animal documentation,” and you’ll find plenty of outfits that, for a fee, will send you the official looking papers you need to get just about any animal into or on just about any business or mode of transportation you choose — no doctor or therapist intervention required.

Which is why it’s not surprising that reports of service animals urinating, defecating or biting people on planes has spiked in recent years. According to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, last June a man was reportedly mauled by another passenger’s 70-pound emotional support dog. The victim, who was left with facial wounds requiring 28 stitches, was in a window seat and couldn’t escape the attack because the dog was sitting in the middle.

Meanwhile, those with true disabilities or emotional issues who legitimately rely on their highly-trained animals to maneuver through the world are worried about the lowered bar and what might happen if they come in contact with some of these badly behaved imposters.

As a result of these incidents, Delta has finally put its paw down by requiring that animals are vaccinated and truly deemed service animals by a real doctor or a certified mental health professional. And for the record, the following are not considered to be support animals by Delta (the parenthetical passenger logic for why they should be allowed aboard are all mine):

  • Hedgehogs (because they’re so cuddly)
  • Ferrets (because they smell good)
  • Insects (because I don’t like the ones in the country I’m traveling to)
  • Rodents (because I take a little bit of New York with me everywhere I go)
  • Snakes (because they impress the opposite sex when worn like a scarf)
  • Spiders (because you never know when you’ll need one for a potion)
  • Sugar gliders (what the hell are those?)
  • Reptiles (because they’re good conversationalists)
  • Amphibians (because they have such soft skin)
  • Goats (because they’re so cute in pajamas)
  • Non-household birds including farm poultry (insert peacock here)
  • Waterfowl, game birds and birds of prey (would you please hold my hunting falcon while I use the lavatory? Here’s her glove … and don’t look her in the eye)
  • Animals improperly cleaned and/or with a foul odor (I guess fellow passengers have that covered)
  • Animals with tusks, horns or hooves (you got a thing against my warthog?)

And next time someone tells you “She’s a service animal, do you want to see her papers?”

Offer them an emphatic “Yes.” And get their doctor’s contact information while you’re at it.