This week, The Wall Street Journal reported that restaurateur Besim Kukaj, proprietor of several eateries in Manhattan, was fined $64,000 after employees of his restaurant, Limon Jungle, refused to seat a patron who was accompanied by a service dog. Mr. Kukaj was forced to pay the customer, Harvey Goldstein, $14,000 and $50,000 to the city of New York. Judge John Spooner presided over the trial. He acquiesced to the NYC Human Rights Commission by raising the initial fine from $25,000 to $50,000. His rationale: “in the absence of adequate civil penalties, there is a risk that businesses will continue to do as respondents have done here—ignore the commission and write off their discriminatory conduct as a mere cost of doing business.”
As we have already noted, Mr. Kukaj is an established businessman who owns many restaurants in New York City. He has the resources which should have been properly deployed towards appropriate staff training in accommodation of disabled patrons. Barring a few specific exceptions, services dogs should be permitted entry into any venue with their owner so long as they are on a leash and obedient.
The terms “service dog” and “emotional support animal” (ESA) are incorrectly used interchangeably. A service dog is a highly trained canine that provides a range of specific functions to people with legitimate medical disabilities. (Worth noting is that service animals are almost always dogs. On occasion, they can be miniature horses).
Service dogs typically cost tens of thousands of dollars and undergo rigorous training to efficiently and effectively accomplish one or a few super specific tasks to aid a disabled owner, often under pressure and/or in difficult situations. They can potentially save their owner’s life.
A service dog is “offered legal protections through the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) that emotional support animals do not get. You can take a service dog almost anywhere that you go and they legally cannot be denied access. Legal protection of an emotional support animal is (typically) limited to housing and air travel.” Some of the specific tasks service dogs perform are as follows:
• Lead a visually impaired owner
• Anticipate and alert its owner to an oncoming seizure
• Answer the door (by pulling a lever)
• Bring its owner medicine & mail
• Bring a phone to its owner (and even bark into a speaker phone)
• Bark to get the attention of others if its owner is in trouble or unable to communicate
• Bark in the case of an intruder
• Alert its owner in case of a fire
• Help its owner stand up, sit down, negotiate stairs, etc.
• Provide psychological support
An emotional support animal “is a companion animal that is intended to provide some benefit for a person disabled by a mental health condition or emotional disorder.” ESA’s can be therapeutic for people with generalized anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder and other psychological issues, but ESA’s are not protected under the ADA and do not require any formal training. However, ESA’s do afford their owners certain important privileges, specifically the right to fly in the cabin of a plane and live in an apartment building that does not allow pets. Technically, ESA’s can be any animal, even an insect.
The simplicity and low barrier to qualify a dog, cat, peacock, snake, or any animal as an ESA renders the system ripe for abuse and fraud. For-profit entities thinly disguised as national agencies or not-for-profits, unscrupulous medical professionals, and dishonest (mostly) middle and upper-income pet owners collude in a cottage industry to legitimize any pet as an ESA. “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.”
To better understand how this shameless web of commerce operates, this writer logged onto the U.S. Dog Registry, browsed the website and finally inquired about registering his bulldog as an emotional support animal. The U.S. Dog Registry is a for-profit company that masks itself as some sort of national agency or not-for-profit. The company sells registration services, kits and other add-ons for service dogs and emotional support animals. It also engages in forms of veiled advertising, virtually enticing would-be customers to act in bad faith. The U.S. Dog Registry reminds would be shoppers that you can :(i) live with your emotional support animal without fees despite “no pet” policies; and (ii) fly with your emotional support animal inside the cabin without fees with no breed, size or weight restriction.
Shoppers are reminded that “Federal law requires individuals with an emotional support dog to provide a valid letter (dated within the past 12 months) from a doctor or mental health professional recommending the use of their animal.” Obtaining a letter is not difficult. In fact, The U.S. Dog Registry is so confident that their customers will be successful in securing the appropriate legal documentation that they offer a “100% money back guarantee.”
At first, this writer wondered how The U.S. Dog Registry was so brazenly confident that a licensed medical doctor or mental health clinician would sign a legal document declaring almost any pet an ESA. It did not take him long to understand their morally corrupt process. When a shopper purchases an ESA kit, they are sent a link and instructed to fill out an online questionnaire. Unbelievably, The U.S. Dog Registry informs its customers that:
“If you answer ‘Yes’ to these 3 questions you prequalify: Do you suffer often from any of these conditions? (i) Worry Anxiety Mood swings OCD (ii) Panic-Attack PTSD Coping Mood-Swings (iii) Depression Loneliness Irritable Others. Does this condition not allow you to live happily? Does your animal help you cope with your condition?"
Note how these questions are phrased. What human being has never worried or suffered from anxiety? What person has never had a mood swing? Aside from somebody who is antisocial (and ironically might actually benefit from an ESA!), who has never been lonely or irritable at one point or another? These questions are written where anybody can technically answer “yes.”
Once the questionnaire is completed (even though a customer can “pre-qualify”), it is evaluated by a doctor or mental health practitioner of The U.S. Dog Registry’s choosing in the buyer’s respective state. In 24-36 hours, almost every single consumer is “approved” and a signed letter is sent via email. The shopper is now the proud parent of an emotional support animal, and is entitled to the privileges that go along with owning one. This is disgraceful.
At TQC, we believe in the value that ESA’s provide. But to have one’s pet designated as an ESA, an owner should be subjected to a comprehensive process that includes an in-person appointment with a doctor that conducts a professional evaluation. No ethical physician or therapist could or would ever make a binding, accurate diagnosis and issue a legal document based on three canned questions and without ever even interviewing the subject in person. Any doctor or mental health professional who does should be sanctioned, fined and, in the case of multiple infractions, potentially lose their license.
People who pay a few hundred dollars in exchange for an ESA legal letter from a dishonest physician are being deceitful and selfish. This self-centered action dilutes and delegitimizes the individuals (and their pets) who actually are in need of and benefit from, a legitimate emotional support animal. Furthermore, phony ESA’s can attack, distract and disrupt service dogs or authentic ESA’s. This problem is especially acute in airplanes.
“In 2018, Delta Air reported an 84% surge in animal incidents since 2016, including urination, defecation and biting.” After all, when an illegitimate ESA is granted access to an airplane, and then defecates all over the cabin, it would only be natural for passengers and staff to be skeptics of any service dog, ESA, and their owners. As a result of these incidents involving dubious ESA’s, Delta has banned all emotional support animals on long haul flights. We do not blame Delta or any other airline that was left little choice but to implement this policy. “ESAs are an epidemic, part of a zoo where entitlement, biting, pooping, and pretty much anything else goes.” While the new rule clearly affects a passenger with a substantive need for an ESA, it protects the vast majority of fliers who are inconvenienced by unruly ESA’s. Blame should be levied against those who game the system to bring an ordinary animal on board, inconvenience their fellow passengers, and devalue people with legitimate physical or emotional disabilities.
The “for profit” entities peddling dubious service animal designations should be shut down. Doctors who accept payment in exchange for “diagnosing” patrons of ESA mills and endorsing legal documents for “patients” they have never examined in person should be sanctioned. This behavior is, at best, unethical. Pet owners must understand and appreciate that securing documents that magically transform their ordinary pet into an ESA is selfish and potentially dangerous.
This action makes the general population increasingly skeptical of legitimate service dogs and ESAs, disrupts service dogs from performing lifesaving tasks, and disenfranchises people like Harvey Goldstein, who actually have a genuine need for a service animal.