The use of fake service animals and emotional support animals exacerbates the stigma of mental illness.
Not long ago I read an article in the New Yorker by Patricia Marx called “Pets Allowed: Why are so many animals now in places where they shouldn’t be?” Ms. Marx is a funny writer, but as soon as I started reading this article I knew I would be doing more than laughing.
From the beginning of Marx’s article, I suspected she was not an animal fan since she focuses on the problems service animals cause for businesses and bystanders rather than the help they provide for the disabled people who depend on them. A few paragraphs into the article she confirms my suspicion this with, “as far as animals go, I like them—medium rare.”
As a person with a service dog I understand that Henry can make people uncomfortable, so when we’re in public, I always ask before I sit down if anyone is allergic to, or afraid of dogs. If I’m going someplace where I know his presence might create a problem, I’ll leave him at home.
Marx writes about the increasing problem of people taking their fake, untrained animals into public places as service and emotional support animals. She clarifies the difference between a service animal and an ESA, by stating that a service dog “is trained to perform specific tasks, such as pulling a wheelchair and responding to seizures.” She explains that an ESA is defined by the government as an untrained companion of any species that provides solace to someone with a disability, such as anxiety or depression, then she refers to ESA’s as “emotional blankies,” implying that mental illness is childish, which I found very insensitive.
To illustrate her report on people using fake support animals she goes undercover as a person with an anxiety disorder. She gets ESA credentials for a fifteen-pound Red-Eared Slider turtle, to which she attaches a cloth ESA badge and a rabbit leash. She rides the bus and takes the turtle to get a pedicure. This made my hackles go up because I have one of these turtles. They are aquatic and should be in or near the water, not riding buses in Manhattan for the amusement of a writer. Poor choice of species for her masquerade!
After the turtle, Marx gets ESA credentials for a Mexican milk snake and takes it to a Chanel boutique; a Royal Palm turkey and goes to Katz’s Delicatessen; a four-and-a-half-foot-tall alpaca and shops in a CVS; and lastly, she takes a one-year-old pig named Daphne on a JetBlue flight from Newark to Boston.
I found myself smiling at the reactions she got from people when she showed up with such unusual animals, but her humor was belittling to those of us with emotional disabilities.
She spends so much of the article ridiculing people who fake the validity of their helper animals so they can take them into restaurants and other venues. I wish she had spent more time speaking with people disabled by mental illness who benefit from ESA’s and service animals. Instead she went for the humor, which leaves the reader thinking that a lot people with service animals are liars, and that their mental illness is something they can get over if they want to. The article made my insides turn, even as I chuckled, because it perpetuates the misunderstanding of mental illness. I’ve tried for years to “get over” my struggles, with the help of a service dog and numerous “emotional blankies,” but it’s not that simple.
I’m aware of the problems created by people pretending their dogs are service dogs, but writing an article that mocks mental illness doesn’t help. I appreciate Marx’s humor and creativity, but not at the expense of people who are struggling.