What a wonderful time it is for the scammer, the conniver, and the cheat: [...] simply by claiming that the creatures are their licensed companion animals and are necessary to their mental well-being. No government agency keeps track of such figures, but in 2011 the National Service Animal Registry, a commercial enterprise that sells certificates, vests, and badges for helper animals, signed up twenty-four hundred emotional-support animals. Last year, it registered eleven thousand. [...]
Contrary to what many business managers think, having an emotional-support card merely means that one's pet is registered in a database of animals whose owners have paid anywhere from seventy to two hundred dollars to one of several organizations, none of which are recognized by the government. (You could register a Beanie Baby, as long as you send a check.) Even with a card, it is against the law and a violation of the city's health code to take an animal into a restaurant. Nor does an emotional-support card entitle you to bring your pet into a hotel, store, taxi, train, or park.
No such restrictions apply to service dogs, which, like Secret Service agents and Betty White, are allowed to go anywhere. In contrast to an emotional-support animal (E.S.A.), a service dog is trained to perform specific tasks, such as pulling a wheelchair and responding to seizures. The I.R.S. classifies these dogs as a deductible medical expense, whereas an emotional-support animal is more like a blankie. [...]
Why didn't anybody do the sensible thing, and tell me and my turtle to get lost? The Americans with Disabilities Act allows you to ask someone with a service animal only two questions: Is the animal required because of a disability? What work or task has the animal been trained to perform? Specific questions about a person's disability are off limits, and, as I mentioned, people are baffled by the distinction between service animals and emotional-support animals. [...]
Through a site called ESA Registration of America, I found a clinical social worker in California who, at a cost of a hundred and forty dollars, agreed to evaluate me over the phone to discuss the role of Augustus, the snake, in my life. [...]
"How does Augustus help you with your problems?"
"Um, he provides unconditional love, and I feel safe when he's around," I said. "He's a good icebreaker, too, if I'm feeling shy."
"You want to have more ease outside the house," the therapist summed up. "Now I want to do a generalized-anxiety screening with you," she said. "In the last fourteen days, have you felt anxious or on edge nearly every day, more than seven days, or less than seven days?" [...]
People with genuine impairments who depend on actual service animals are infuriated by the sort of imposture I perpetrated with my phony E.S.A.s. Nancy Lagasse suffers from multiple sclerosis and owns a service dog that can do everything from turning lights on and off to emptying her clothes dryer. "I'm shocked by the number of people who go online and buy their pets vests meant for working dogs," she told me. "These dogs snarl and go after my dog. They set me up for failure, because people then assume my dog is going to act up." [...]
Corey Hudson, the C.E.O. of Canine Companions for Independence, a nonprofit provider of trained assistance animals, told me that he has "declared war on fake assistance dogs." Earlier this year, his organization submitted a petition, which has now been signed by twenty-eight thousand people, to the Department of Justice, requesting that it consider setting up a registration -- "like the Department of Motor Vehicles" -- to test and certify assistance dogs and to regulate the sale of identification vests, badges, and so forth. "They responded that they think the law is adequate."
We have to deal with these entitled, lying shitheels at the club and restaurant all the time. It is especially infuriating at the club, because -- in my humble but correct opinion -- bringing a dog into a nightclub is just straight-up animal abuse. That animal is going to go deaf. So our staff strictly comply with the letter of the law -- and ensure that these people do as well. After their little snookums has inevitably hopped up onto the bar, humped a stranger's leg, or run wild, this usually results in a 30 minute conversation ending with, "You are welcome to sue us, or call the police, but right now, you have to leave." So far, they've been all bark and no bite.