WASHINGTON — When next you shoehorn yourself into one of America's ever-shrinking airline seats, you might encounter a new wrinkle in the romance of air travel. You might be amused, or not, to discover a midsize — say, 7 feet long — boa constrictor named Oscar coiled contentedly, or so you hope, in the seat next to you. Oscar is an "emotional-support animal." He belongs to the person in the seat on the other side of him, and he is a manifestation of a new item, or the metastasizing of an old item, on America's menu of rights. Fortunately, the federal government is on the case, so you can relax and enjoy the flight.
The rapid recent increase of emotional-support animals in airplane cabins is an unanticipated consequence of a federal law passed with the best of intentions, none of which pertained to Dexter the peacock, more about whom anon. In 2013, the Department of Housing and Urban Development told providers of public housing that the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) mandates "reasonable accommodations" for persons who require "assistance animals."
The Air Carrier Access Act of 1986 allows access to animals trained to provide emotional support. Federal guidelines say airlines must allow even emotional-support animals that have a potential to "offend or annoy" passengers, but that airlines are allowed to — let us not sugarcoat this — discriminate against some "unusual" animals.
Yet a New York photographer and performance artist named, according to the Associated Press, Ventiko recently was denied the right to board her Newark-to-Los Angeles flight with her "emotional-support peacock," for whom Ventiko had bought a ticket. And there is a 29-year-old traveler who insists that she cannot "think about life without" Stormy, her emotional-support parakeet. So, if Oscar's owner says Oscar provides support, and the owner lawyers up …
In contemporary America, where whims swiftly become necessities en route to becoming government-guaranteed entitlements, it is difficult to draw lines. Besides, lines are discouraged lest someone (or some species?) be "stigmatized" by being "marginalized." The line JetBlue has drawn dehumanizes snakes. Yes, they are not technically human, but don't quibble. Anyway, soon enough there will be a lobby ("Rights for Reptiles"?), and lobbies are precursors to entitlements.
JetBlue is attempting to fly between the Scylla of passengers discomforted by a duck waddling down the aisle (even though it is wearing a diaper; this has happened more than once) and the Charybdis of animal advocates who are hypersensitive to speciesism, aka anti-pet fascism. JetBlue says that "unusual animals" such as "snakes, other reptiles, ferrets, rodents and spiders" are verboten, even as emotional-support animals. Southwest rather sternly says that passengers accompanied by emotional-support animals had better have papers from credentialed experts certifying "a mental or emotional disability recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders — Fourth Edition." But the DSM already accords the status of disability to almost every imaginable human trait or quirk and is eager to imagine new ones.
Delta experienced a nearly one-year doubling of what it delicately calls "incidents" (urinating, defecating, biting). "Farm poultry," hedgehogs, and creatures with tusks are unwelcome on Delta, which is going to be alert regarding the booming market for forged documents attesting to emotional neediness. The Association of Flight Attendants is pleased, perhaps because one of its members was asked to give a dog oxygen because the dog's owner said it was having a panic attack.
Now, let us, as the lawyers say, stipulate a few things. Quadrupeds, and no-peds like Oscar, have done a lot less damage to the world than have bipeds, and often are better mannered than many of today's human air travelers. Animals can be comforting to anyone and can be therapeutic to the lonely, the elderly with symptoms of senescence, and soldiers and others suffering post-traumatic stress disorder. Studies have purported to show that people living with pets derive myriad benefits, including lower cholesterol. A Washington Post report says "horses are used to treat sex addiction." Thank you, Post, for not elaborating.
But the proliferation of emotional-support animals suggests that a cult of personal fragility is becoming an aspect of the quest for the coveted status of victim. The cult is especially rampant in colleges and universities, which increasingly embrace the therapeutic mission of assuaging the anxieties of the emotionally brittle. There, puppies are deployed to help students cope with otherwise unbearable stresses, such as those caused by final exams or rumors of conservatism.