“Snakes (Pigs, Squirrels, Dogs, Cats, Ducks, Peacocks, Hamsters, and Miniature Horses) on a Plane.”

“Snakes (Pigs, Squirrels, Dogs, Cats, Ducks, Peacocks, Hamsters, and Miniature Horses) on a Plane.” 

By: Shannon Tubbs 

            In a world where pets have become as near and dear to people as human children, the desire to have them with us any and everywhere we go is no surprise. Chances are, if you have flown on an airplane in the past few years, you have noticed an increasing number of furry friends both at the airport and on your flight. A story that recently made headlines in the news and on social media gave the term “flying squirrel” a very literal meaning. Cindy Torok, a woman boarding a Frontier Airlines flight from Orlando to Cleveland earlier this month, attempted to bring along her “emotional support” squirrel, but was told she could not do so. [1] The woman refused to comply when airline staff asked her to leave the aircraft, which resulted in a number of other passengers having to deplane so authorities could remove the woman and her squirrel. [2] When asked about the incident, Frontier gave a statement saying that the woman had told the airline she would be bringing an emotional-support animal, but did not tell them it would be a squirrel.[3] The airline made no apologies for adhering to their policy that “[r]odents, including squirrels, are not allowed on Frontier flights.”[4] Cindy’s daughter, Monica Torok, is upset and angry about the incident and voiced that she is “going to call the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) and talk to them and see what they have to say about it,” because her mother’s rights should not have been taken away.[5] While the Torok’s have every right to voice their outrage and hurt feelings, it appears that there is a strong argument for narrowly defining what does and does not qualify as a service or emotional support animal.

            The ADA defines service animals “as dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities.”[6]  The ADA also revised the ADA regulations to include “miniature horses that have been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities.”[7] However, the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) is also in existence and expands the definition of a service animal, regarding those allowed on flights, to “any animal that assists persons with disabilities by providing emotional support.”[8] Airlines are allowed to exclude animals for a number of reasons, including animals that are too large or heavy to be accommodated in the cabin, pose a threat to the health or safety of others, cause a significant disruption, or are prohibited from entry into a foreign country.[9] Although a person may have proper documentation from a physician stating that the person has a need for a psychiatric support animal, the ACAA specifically notes that “[a]irlines are never required to accept snakes, reptiles, ferrets, rodents, sugar gliders, and spiders.”[10]

            The issue surrounding the use of service and/or emotional support animals is that people are abusing the system. Sharon Giovinazzo, president and chief executive of World Services for the Blind and an Army veteran who lost her sight from multiple sclerosis, explains that people are brining untrained animals “masquerading as a service animal in what advocates for people with disabilities said had become a growing problem in the last few years.”[11] “Passengers pass off their pets as support or service animals so they can remain in the cabin instead of the cargo hold,” which in turn “could displace legitimate ones because most airlines limit the number allowed in a cabin.”[12] Further, an animal who is only a pet and has not been trained is much more prone to growl, bite, and have accidents under the stress of the situation.[13]

            So how do we cut down on fraud and ensure those who truly need service and support animals are accommodated? Republican Senator, Richard Burr has proposed legislation “to have the definition of a service animal under the Air Carrier Access Act match the one in the Americans with Disabilities Act,” which “would bar from flights animals whose sole function was to provide comfort or emotional support and require federal agencies to establish a standard of behavior training for animals that would be working on planes.”[14] While this may seem harsh to some people, the reality is that it is necessary to prevent abuse that ultimately discredits the use of service animals by people who truly have disabilities. 

[1] Lindsey Bever, A woman brought her 'emotional support' squirrel on a plane. Frontier wouldn't let it fly. The Washington Post (2018), https://www.washingtonpost.com/transportation/2018/10/10/woman-brought-her-emotional-support-squirrel-plane-frontier-wouldnt-let-it-fly/?utm_term=.1690a2f32e18 (last visited Oct 21, 2018).

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] Woman speaks out after mom booted from flight over "emotional support" squirrel. CBS News (2018), https://www.cbsnews.com/news/emotional-support-squirrel-daughter-of-woman-escorted-off-plane-speaks-out-frontier-airlines-flight-incident-2018-10-11/ (last visited Oct 21, 2018).

[6] Service Animals, ADA Requirements: Service Animals, https://www.ada.gov/service_animals_2010.htm (last visited Oct 21, 2018).

[7] Id.

[8] Service Animals (Including Emotional Support Animals), US Department of Transportation (2017), https://www.transportation.gov/individuals/aviation-consumer-protection/service-animals-including-emotional-support-animals (last visited Oct 21, 2018).

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] Christopher Mele, Is That Dog (or Pig) on Your Flight Really a Service Animal? The New York Times (2018), https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/01/travel/service-animals-planes.html (last visited Oct 21, 2018).

[12] Id.

[13] Id.

[14] Id.