A 26-year-old Starbucks barista in the suburbs of Tampa, Florida, known as Vayne Myers has suffered from anxiety ever since he was a child. A co-worker suggested he try an emotional support animal.
So Myers bought a duck and named it Primadonna. The snow-white bird has worked wonders for his state of mind.
“Whenever I felt like I didn’t matter in the world,” he said, Primadonna would waddle over and remind him that “something does love you.”
But Myers’ landlord objected, and demanded proof that Primadonna was a medical necessity and not simply a pet. Myers provided a letter from a therapist in California who spoke to him over a video chat, and then another note from a counselor who met in person with him (and the duck). But neither document satisfied the landlord, who threatened eviction.
Myers hired a lawyer and filed a complaint of housing discrimination with the Department of Housing and Urban Development using his legal name, Jesse Calfas — one of more than 1,000 similar complaints the agency has received so far this year.
The number of people claiming they have a right to live with animals for their mental health — as well as to take them onto planes and into restaurants and stores — has been growing rapidly.
In 2011, the National Service Animal Registry, a for-profit company that sells official-looking vests and certificates for owners, had 2,400 service and emotional support animals in its registry. Now the number is nearly 200,000.
But the spread of such animals — the vast majority of them dogs — has also been met by concerns from landlords, airlines and other businesses that many Americans may be abusing the system. Critics say that pet owners are obtaining phony certifications or letters from online therapists to avoid paying fees or to get permission to bring creatures where they wouldn’t normally be allowed.
“We’ve seen everything from reptiles to insects,” said Amanda Gill, government affairs director for the Florida Apartment Association, which represents landlords.
“Obviously, you want to accommodate people with legitimate requests, but that’s harder to do when you have so many bogus requests,” Gill said. “Everyone is recognizing that this is a growing problem right now.”
More than two dozen state legislatures have enacted new laws to crack down on fraud.
A law passed in Utah this year makes it a misdemeanor to lie about a pet being an emotional support animal, or ESA, expanding a law already on the books that made it a crime to misrepresent a pet as a Seeing Eye dog.
Oklahoma just passed a law clarifying that restaurants and stores have a right to keep support animals out. Virginia’s law cracks down on websites that promise to provide ESA verification letters for a fee, without having any therapeutic relationship with the animal’s owner.
“A true service animal is a highly trained dog,” said Oklahoma state Rep. Tammy Townley, who supports her state’s new law. “When someone comes in with an emotional support animal, they are saying, ‘It’s my service animal.’ No — it’s something you bought a vest for.”
Advocates point out that therapy animals are protected by the Fair Housing Act, which requires landlords to make “reasonable accommodations” for people with disabilities, like a wheelchair-accessible parking space. They worry that the new laws will embolden landlords to deny animals to tenants who need them.
Even some supporters of the new measures struggle over how to distinguish a legitimate need from a fraud.
“It’s really hard to draw a bright line,” said Todd Weiler, a state senator in Utah who said that an old high school classmate of his keeps an emotional support pig. “To a large extent, everybody could benefit from having a pet,” Weiler said. “When is it an emotional support animal and when it is a pet?”
Sam Killebrew, a Florida state lawmaker who sponsored a bill to curb emotional support animal claims, said he went online and registered Ophelia, a stuffed baboon in his office, as his “emotional support animal,” even though she’s been frozen, her fang-filled mouth agape, by a taxidermist.
“As long as you pay your money, you’re going to get that card,” he said.
He sponsored a bill this year that would allow landlords to require that tenants who claim a need for an animal obtain a letter from a licensed medical professional based in Florida. Killibrew later withdrew the bill, but he said he plans to reintroduce it next year.
Sara Pratt, former assistant secretary for fair housing at HUD, agreed that the certificates sold online can be a problem. “They are useless,” she said. But she warned that state lawmakers who rush to criminalize people for seeking documentation of a need for a support animal are sending the wrong message to landlords, who are at risk of getting slapped with hefty federal fines.
The Americans with Disabilities Act defines service animals as dogs or small horses that are trained to perform specialized tasks, like leading a blind person or detecting seizures. Service animals must be allowed in restaurants, stores and other public places, even where animals are otherwise barred.
Emotional support animals, which provide comfort with their presence but generally have no special training, do not have the same status under the disabilities act. But when it comes to keeping an animal at home in a rental unit, federal law has been interpreted to give tenants a right to live with an animal if it helps treat depression or anxiety.
Skepticism surrounding emotional support animals has increased with their rising numbers, especially at airports, where another law — the Air Carrier Access Act — gives airlines wide latitude over how various creatures are handled. Some airlines refuse to allow hedgehogs, snakes and rodents, along with dogs, into the passenger cabin for flights longer than eight hours. A number of widely publicized incidents — a dog allegedly mauling a passenger and an emotional support squirrel causing an entire flight to deplane — have added to the anxiety over anxiety-soothing animals.
Some people who require Seeing Eye dogs have complained that their animals have been attacked in airports or restaurants by untrained emotional support dogs, and that the explosion in support animals has led to more skepticism of true service dogs.
Myers, who says his anxiety stems from being abused as a child by his mother’s boyfriend, bought his duck from a farm around Easter, when he was just a fuzzy duckling a few days old. He knew he wanted Primadonna when the duckling snuggled in his open hand.
They quickly grew attached to each other.
“I take him in the shower, in the bath, and outside,” he said, adding that the duck wears a diaper inside the house to avoid messes. “He will follow me whoever I go.”
Myers said that Primadonna mostly stays in a private yard, and that his neighbors have been unaware of the feathered creature in their midst. The duck’s presence was discovered during an unrelated maintenance visit. His landlord, who charges a fee for tenants who keep cats, said that ducks were not allowed, and demanded proof that the duck had been prescribed by a doctor before making an exception.
After Myers was threatened with eviction, he found Matthew Deitz, litigation director of the Disability Independence Group, a nonprofit legal advocacy center in Florida.
Deitz does not deny that some people pretend to need an animal when they merely want one. But that does not worry him nearly as much, he said, as situations like the one confronting a homeless veteran he has been helping recently. The veteran had finally found housing, he said, but was now being asked to give up two dogs that had lived with him throughout his years on the street.
“My basic stance is that mental illness is tough,” Dietz said. “Anything that makes somebody feel better, why not? As long as you don’t hurt anybody else, what’s the big deal?”
Lawyer after lawyer turned down Myers’ case, but Deitz took it right away. And with the help of HUD, he successfully negotiated with the landlord for Primadonna to stay.
If a client says he needs a duck, he needs a duck, Deitz said. “Why would somebody lie about something like that?”