NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WZTV) — No doubt you've noticed, pet lovers seem to be taking their animals everywhere these days.
Some are performing a true service for their owners, but many are not. Now, several states, airlines and businesses are being forced to crack down on the abuse.
At Nashville K-9, the need for a service or emotional support animal has to be legitimate.
“People really tell me flat out tell, ‘I really just want to be able to travel with my dog everywhere and restaurants.’ I tell them that’s wrong. It’s actually unfathomable that someone would call and ask such a dangerous question. What about people who really need animals like this?" Owner Ali Hemyari said.
Hemyari opened his training facility 15 years ago and says times have really changed with more and more pet owners abusing service animal and emotional support animal rules. He adds, “We’ve really seen the evolution of this over the last 3-4 years.”
From the peacock trying to board a plane in New Jersey to the little girl mauled by an untrained ‘emotional support’ pit bull in Oregon, to Zatara, the opossum flying out of Austin, businesses are cracking down.
Gerald Tautenhahn, owner of Zatara explains what happened to him, “One of the crew members came up and said, ‘Hey, can I speak with you outside?’ They said, ‘Hey, either you can leave her here or you can stay with her, but she can't fly.’ The feeling was insane. It was frustrating beyond belief because they let me come here with her, but now I can't return with her.”
FOX 17 News also introduced you to the Bellevue man who takes his rat along to various places to help him with anxiety. As businesses try to work within existing disability law to curtail the explosion of "pets in tow," states are also helping.
Representative Darren Jernigan of Old Hickory explains the new law he worked to pass, “We're trying to protect those who truly need it versus those who are just trying to scam the system.”
Jernigan, partially paralyzed 30 years ago in a car accident, helped pass a bill that protects landlords from abuse.
He adds, “When someone comes in and says I have a companion animal, waive the pet fee or lower the price, this is connected to my disability, I think it's rightly so in the realm to where the landlord can say well just give me some documentation so I can prove this is the case and I'd be happy to do that.”
Tennessee is one of a couple dozen states cracking down legislatively. Service animal professionals liken the abuse to parking in a handicap spot, when you're really able bodied just because you don't want to walk as far. It's about weeding out a want from a true need. Hop on any number of websites selling the emotional support animal certificates, answer the questions "correctly" and some will give you an official looking certificate after you pay. Others have you talk with a mental health professional over the phone first.
Hemyari responds,”It's definitely not a valid piece of paper and it's unfortunate too because those people have an ethical responsibility to be able to provide their services and they're doing it in a pretty unethical way despite their filters in qualifying somebody. It's truly unethical of the consumer also logging into those websites and saying well I'm a little anxious. Well, who's not anxious nowadays? We need to be able to close this ADA loophole where people feel they can bring an untrained dog anywhere.”
So far, Representative Jernigan hasn't chosen to get a service animal, but he wants those who truly need one to have it and all the other ‘pet lovers’ to leave theirs home. He jokingly says, “It's a personal choice. I could certainly use one, but with four kids, I don't need one.”
FOX 17 News did reach out to several of the internet businesses selling emotional support animal certifications. Some did not wish to comment. Others defended their business saying they do match customers with local mental health experts through telemedicine.