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George Will

George F. Will: 'Emotional support' takes wing

| Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2018, 9:10 p.m.
Dexter the peacock was grounded at the Newark, N.J., airport despite his owner's claim that he's an 'emotional-support animal.'
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Dexter the peacock was grounded at the Newark, N.J., airport despite his owner's claim that he's an 'emotional-support animal.'

WASHINGTON

When next you shoehorn into an ever-shrinking airline seat, you might encounter a new wrinkle that might amuse you, or not: a midsize — say, 7-foot — boa constrictor named Oscar, an “emotional-support animal,” in the seat next to you. He is a manifestation of a new item, or the metastasizing of an old item, on America's menu of rights.

Emotional-support animals' rapid recent increase in airplane cabins is an unanticipated consequence of a federal law passed with the best of intentions, none of which pertained to them. The Air Carrier Access Act of 1986 allows access to animals trained to provide emotional support. Federal guidelines say airlines must allow even those that have a potential to “offend or annoy” passengers, but 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 she had bought a ticket. 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.” Soon enough there will be a lobby (“Rights for Reptiles”?), and lobbies are precursors to entitlements.

JetBlue says “unusual animals” such as “snakes, other reptiles, ferrets, rodents and spiders” are verboten, even as emotional-support animals. Southwest rather sternly says 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,” which accords disability status to almost every imaginable human trait or quirk.

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 alert regarding the booming market for forged documents attesting to emotional neediness. The Association of Flight Attendants is pleased, perhaps because a member was asked to give oxygen to a dog whose owner said it was having a panic attack.

Let us, as lawyers say, stipulate a few things. Quadrupeds, and “no-peds” like Oscar, have damaged the world a lot less than have bipeds, and often are better mannered. Animals can be comforting to anyone and therapeutic to the lonely, the elderly, and those suffering post-traumatic stress disorder. Studies have purported to show people with pets derive myriad benefits.

But the proliferation of emotional-support animals suggests a cult of personal fragility is becoming an aspect of the quest for coveted victim status. The cult is especially rampant in colleges and universities, where puppies help students cope with otherwise unbearable stresses, such as those caused by final exams or rumors of conservatism.

George F. Will is a columnist for Newsweek and The Washington Post.

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