Emotional Support Animals Need Better Regulations

Dominique Kent/Staff Writer

Four girls. Four cats. One student apartment. If it sounds like a bad joke, I can assure you – it wasn’t all that funny.

This was in 2017, at the University of Nevada, Reno, and here’s how my roommates and I got to that point.

I arrived at my old campus with my approved Emotional Support Animal. My roommates got “kitty envy.” Understandable. What’s better than having your pet come to live with you at school?

The problem? They each actually got one. One wasn’t litterbox trained and wrecked the apartment. One meowed all night. One attacked the other cats. And my bestie, a large tuxedo cat named Cat, took to hiding under the bed day and night. It was a disaster.

How could this happen? It happened because, in general, there are very few rules and regulations in place regarding ESAs. In fact, no matter the school or the city, there seems to be an influx of false information confusing what is and isn’t protected – and what people can and cannot get away with.

Here are some basic facts. First, there is no such thing as an ESA registration. If you are directed to a site that wants you to pay for “ESA registration,” you’re being punked and you’re doing something illegal. If your landlord demands ESA “registration,” they are doing something illegal. It’s as simple as that. The only way to have an ESA is to have a legitimate doctor or psychiatrist write a letter prescribing the animal.

Second, ESAs are protected in America by the Fair Housing Act. This means they can live and travel with their owners, no pet fees or deposits. This does not allow ESAs into the same public places as service animals, no matter how well trained.

What does this mean for FIU students? Basically, legitimate ESAs are allowed into the dorms as long as you work with the Disability Resource Center to ensure you have the proper documentation. According to the DRC website, “emotional Support animals are not allowed in classrooms or in public places on campus. ESA’s are only allowed in Housing with immediate access to outdoor areas from residence halls.”

Third, landlords and renters actually do have the right to kick you out if the animal is destroying things or behaving badly. No matter how legitimate your ESA is, if it’s destroying the furniture and causing problems, it’s no longer protected.

Now, the problem with ESAs is illustrated by my aforementioned tale of misery. Anyone can get one. You can go to a scammy website and get “registration,” you can go to a doctor and make a false claim of mental illness, you can even forge a letter.

ESAs “have mauled people on planes, given birth at airports and been flushed down terminal toilets…” according to a 2019 article in the Miami Herald. They also write that “Florida lawmakers are converging on the latest front in the war on fake service animals: apartments and condo buildings.”

Basically, patience is running thin regarding fake ESAs and people who scam the system. Some people truly need ESAs and work hard to go through the proper channels. 

I’ve written about my struggles with mental health before. Without my ESA, my anxiety and bipolar would make it extremely difficult to live on my own. There are times when I’m struggling too much to do nearly anything on my own, but the need to take care of another creature forces me to take care of myself. 

While ESAs are not trained like service animals to provide medical support, they can be grounding and provide a reason to wake up in the morning. For PTSD survivors, people struggling with mental health issues and others with a legitimate need, ESAs can be invaluable. 

Having an ESA requires a documented mental illness and need. When others take advantage of the lack of restrictions in order to avoid paying pet fees or to get around rules restricting pets, it delegitimizes everyone.

There should be more clear and strict rules regarding ESAs. There should be ways to check out the validity of people’s claims. And there should be a way for those of us with real, pressing needs to separate ourselves from the fakers and to show our very real claims. 

Featured image by Bob n Renee on Flickr.

 

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