Commentary: This feathered passenger ran ‘a-fowl’ of the guidelines


From the “You Are Now Entering the Twilight Zone” file, I submit for your consideration the following item: It was reported recently by Fox News that a passenger brought a turkey onto a Delta flight as an “emotional support” animal.

Yes, a turkey!

The passenger provided proper documentation that the turkey was her “therapy pet,” so Delta Airlines was forced to let the turkey board, even giving the bird its own seat. One photo showed the turkey receiving special VIP treatment as it was rolled through the airport to the gate on a wheelchair.

So, my question is, does this kind of behavior represent taking the notion of an “emotional support” animal to the absurd? I suggest it does.

There is scientific evidence that when dogs look at you with total devotion, it produces oxytocin, which helps you cope with fear.

But are you going to tell me that a turkey is going to elicit the same calming effect?

I don’t think so. And even if it did, there should be no place for a turkey on an airplane, forcing fellow passengers to cope with all kinds of potential problems.

Besides the possibility of fellow passengers having allergic reactions to dogs, cats or other support animals brought onto a plane, there is also the concern of the animal biting a passenger or crew member, which has happened. Airlines, while concerned about these issues, are more concerned about the fine imposed by the government if they refuse a legitimate support animal.

According to the news report, airlines face fines for refusing requests for legitimate support animals, along with potential lawsuits by passengers who claim to “need” their support animals in order to cope with the stress of flying.

To complicate matters, the notion of a so-called “legitimate support animal” is itself being abused. The news report states that some passengers have faked their emotional support needs, gaming the system to avoid paying otherwise hefty fees to include their pet on a flight.

One must get a mental health professional to certify that a support animal is needed. And so it is not surprising to find out that the Internet now makes it easy to find sites that for a fee upward of $200, will provide the necessary letters (and animal support vests!) for anyone wanting documentation.

These support animals are not the same as trained service animals, who are formally trained to provide a specific function. If a psychologist is certifying a pet as an emotional support animal, he is stating that the patient has a diagnosable disability that requires the presence of an animal.

So, you see the problem if it is as easy as going to a phony online certification mill. The site has no way to know whether or not the person truly has a diagnosable disability. This makes it too easy to game the system, as it presently exists.

This is an area, like all others in psychology that requires specific training in order to become competent and understand the legal implications of making these kinds of disability determinations. They are not to be made lightly, as they will be at online certification mill sites.

I’ve been in private practice for 40 years and yet I would not risk making this kind of determination without training and without personally evaluating the person wanting the documentation. I would much rather help people learn the coping skills they need to manage their fears and anxieties about flying without resorting to using animals for emotional support.

Dr. STEVEN HENDLIN is a clinical psychologist in Newport Beach.