Fake emotional service animals, are people gaming the system?

(WXYZ) - You’ve seen the headlines: ducks, pigs, even a peacock caught on camera at airports around the country — their owners stating they’re not pets, but emotional service animals.

An increasing numbers of animals flying on airlines around the country has experts questioning how many of these animals are real emotional service animals and how many are fake.

Last year Delta Airlines saw an increase of more than 80-percent in animals brought onto their aircrafts, that’s roughly 700 animals a day flying the friendly skies. United Airlines told 7 Action News they saw a spike year-to-year of roughly 75-percent.

According to Kevin Hirzel; an attorney at Cummings, McClorey, Davis & Acho, landlords and homeowner’s associations are seeing more requests for emotional service animals too. Of course, a spike doesn’t necessarily mean that all animals are fraudulent — which causes problems for those who are in charge of determining who’s doing things properly and who is gaming the system.

“The penalties if you get this wrong are very substantial,” said Kevin Hirzel, a lawyer who has been paying close attention to a bill in the Michigan legislature that would change the rules for emotional service animals. “There are certainly going to be legitimate requests. There have been a rise in those legitimate requests just because this is new developing area of the law.”

Emotional service animals do not fall under ADA law. That means a letter from a doctor doesn’t mean a restaurant or business must allow for them, however, under the Fair Housing Act and the Federal Air Carrier Act emotional service animals and their owners have specialized rights when it comes to living situations and flying.

As more and more people showing up with alleged emotional service animals have led to the open question: how legitimate are these animals?

“On the internet anyone can get out there and figure out how to skirt the rules, or what they can say to get an emotional service animal,” said Hirzel.

It’s not hard to get a letter from a certified doctor, in fact, I was able to get my hands on legitimate paperwork in the time it took me to get my brakes changed last month.

I searched the internet for the best deals and picked a handful of websites — each practices something known as “tele-psychiatry,” basically they diagnose you without ever stepping foot into someone’s office. I was approved by several websites, but only followed through with the purchase of an “Emotional Service Animal letter” through one company, Touch ESA.

It took me a few minutes to plug in personal details, I had to answer a questionnaire and pay $88 — within the hour I had a letter stating I have an “emotional disability recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.”

According to multiple websites, the doctor practices in Wisconsin. I attempted to reach her by both phone and email on multiple occasions to question how may letters her business churns out in a year, and whether she agrees the practice is too easy to manipulate. Dr. Lauri Gebhard has not responded after a few weeks of attempts.

“It’s disgusting,” said Diana Revels, a woman who flies with her tiny poodle named ‘Abby.’

“I rely on her not just on the plane, I really on her at home — everywhere.”

Revels is concerned about the exploding number of emotional service animals on airplanes because she needs hers. Revels lost her husband 11 years ago, her doctor recommended she purchase an emotional service animal because of anxiety issues. 

“You know they’re supposed to be trained,” said Revels, “but most the ones I’ve seen are not.”

In Michigan changes could come soon. State Senator Peter MacGregor recently introduced Senate Bill 663, if passed it would enact tighter restrictions on emotional service animals.

“It pretty must takes the posers, or the imposters, out of the arena,” said MacGregor. “Those who are abusing the system to save a buck, or aren’t really willing to see a doctor or a therapist.”

MacGregor admitted that since he took the bill to the Michigan Senate the response has been bigger than he expected. Originally a number of airline workers and landlords had approached him voicing concerns, now people from throughout the country are reacting.

“It’s clearly starting to hit a tipping point os misuse,” said MacGregor.

Currently the bill has a number of processes to go through before it potentially becomes law, but MacGregor is hopeful something is done. Hirzel told 7 Action News he’s already submitted public comment on the bill in hopes of fine-tuning a number of items before the bill moves forward to a vote.

In the meantime, there is talk that HUD is looking at it’s own rules when it comes to emotional service animals and housing, while airlines are doing similar things. A spokesperson from United Airlines told 7 Action News that they’re currently reviewing their rules. 

Delta has already made changes to it’s rules which include requirements starting March 1st that include proof of health and vaccinations for a pet 48 hour before a flight leaves the airport, a signed letter by a mental health professional and a signed document that the animal has been trained properly for the setting it’s about to enter.

“The rise in serious incidents involving animals in flight leads us to believe that the lack of regulation in both health and training screening for these animals is creating unsafe conditions across U.S. air travel,” said John Laughter, Delta’s Senior Vice President — Corporate Safety, Security and Compliance.

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