A Perfect Human-Animal Bond Storm
Nothing is more sad than the death of an illusion. Arthur Koestler
While many items appear on my list of enjoyable activities, reading mysteries remains a life-long favorite. This ongoing exploration of the who-what-where-when-how and why of hundreds plots and thousands of characters taught and reinforces skills that also serve me well in my work.
That’s the good news.
Equally good news - When you train yourself to see human-animal interactions as dynamic ecosystems instead of isolated problems with isolated solutions designed to work in a controlled environment, you can see when, where, how, and why certain human-animal combinations involved in certain interactions could break down. If the weaknesses occur in your relationship with your own animal, this broader view enables you to address those weaknesses up-front and head off problems. Trainers aware that such problems could occur with their clients and their animals can create programs that avoid those pitfalls. These trainers also can help pet owners already experiencing such breakdowns successfully work through them.
But sometimes human-animal interactions unroll in such a feel-good way that weaknesses in the process go unnoticed or, if recognized, are ignored in hopes these will magically disappear. Consider what happened when the concept of animals supplying emotional support on-demand for those with behavioral or emotional disabilities entered the scene. From the beginning, there were those in the human health, animal behavior, training, bond, and regulating communities, among others, who realized that those working in the different sectors contributing to the rapidly growing ESA industry either couldn’t or didn’t want to see big picture.
To those taking a more ecological view, it appeared that several influences fueled this denial:
1. Ignorance of normal animal behavior and the full range—including the negative—of the physiological, mental, and emotional effects of the bonds that may form between vulnerable humans and animals in certain situations. Ignorance also created and perpetuates the common myth that knowledge of training automatically bestows knowledge of animal behavior and the full range and complexity of bond. This ignorance also extended to those in the human medical and mental health professions who recommended or even prescribed ESAs for their patients and clients. Similarly, those responsible for drafting laws and regulations governing any aspect of ESAs and their use demonstrated a woeful lack of knowledge regarding the workings of the ESA movement and its implementation. Worse, some who lacked this knowledge didn’t realize they lacked it; others lacked it, but thought they possessed it.
2. Desire to cash in on the positive PR and media surrounding ESA. We live in a society in which PR and spin wield more power than facts and science. Social media encourages us to react emotionally instead of thinking critically and it works much (!) faster. ESAs' media-darling status also generates funding, income, and donations for those involved in the process. Pair ESAs with disabled kids or soldiers and their value increases. Pair those kids and wounded warriors with ESAs with sad stories (that may or may not be accurate) from shelters, and the PR value increases even more.
3. Fear of publicly stating how shaky the whole system is lest one get accused of discrimination or, worse, get thrown to the negative PR and media wolves. Been there, done that. Could be doing the same yet again. It’s not fun.
This denial resulted in the creation of multiple perceived all-positive microcosms, each with its own individual, sometimes shaky components unfolding and gradually converging in thousands of incidents nationwide. Instead of mysteries with their standard of who-what-when-where-how-and why to ensure a broader view, these unfolded like fairy tales. But even the most all-positive approach can’t guarantee happy endings. While the power of PR and the feel-good media combined with fear of reprisal for questioning why parts of ESA system didn’t work initially led to denial and suppression of any negative effects, it couldn’t last.
Like other human-animal interactions, as the ESA movement gained momentum and the numbers and complexity of the situations to which these human-animal pairs were exposed or exposed themselves and others increased, the stress on its component parts increased accordingly. The system functioned like a busy airport with planes of all sizes in all stages of mechanical soundness piloted and crewed by those with unknown training and experience, regulated by vague controllers and national and international rules, taking off and landing 24/7 regardless of the weather. Logic screamed that the elements capable of creating a perfect storm could occur at any time.
And so they did when the inevitable sadly occurred last month. The headlines said it all:
In addition to the obvious tragedy that an innocent person paid the price for exposing multiple problems in the ESA system, it’s equally tragic that all those component parts probably will engage in the usual blame-game to evade responsibility. What happens to whom when most likely will be determined by lawyers equally ignorant of animal behavior and the bond. And once they get involved, whatever happens most likely will take a long time and cost someone lots of money.
In the meantime, human healthcare professionals, psychologists, sociologists or anyone who prescribes or recommends these animals, attorneys, politicians, bureaucrats, media types, law enforcement and security personnel, and members of the public repeat the following 1000 times until you know this as well as you know your own name: Emotional support animals are NOT service animals. And frankly, I’m not convinced that even psychiatric service dogs fit the criteria of a service animal either.
There’s a reason why real service dogs are so expensive. They’re carefully bred, selected, and trained by skilled and experienced professionals to accomplish specific tasks that enable them to reliably perform those specific services for the people they serve. In addition to reliably performing those specific tasks, service animals also must be reliably trained to ignore environmental distractions that would interfere with their ability to do their job. What specific services these animals should be trained to performed for how long on any given day should be determined by the patient/client, physical and healthcare providers (e.g. physicians, physical, occupational and mental health therapists), and family or other home care providers. Equally important, whether the proposed animal or any animal can fulfill those demands should be determined by experienced breeders, veterinarians, and trainers.
And finally, that mutual patient/client-animal training must be proofed in increasingly complex environments over time. Because this is a labor- as well as time-consuming but necessary process to protect the disabled person-support animal unit and the public, I would urge those who recommend or prescribe these animals to ask yourselves how much you and other professionals in your area are willing and able to support these human-animal teams.
Currently I see little to no evidence of this awareness in the ESA community.
Additionally and unlike legitimate service animals, many ESAs do not come from established lines of animals bred with the physical and mental soundness necessary to support their stated purpose. Nor does it appear that many of the pets or animals from other sources that patients/clients or their caregivers want to function as ESAs are being thoroughly evaluated to determine the animal’s physical and mental fitness to assume this role. Even if these animals do possess the right stuff, they still must be properly trained to do those specific tasks deemed most beneficial to the disabled person by that person and their healthcare providers. No animal can be trained to guess what the disabled person wants and give it to them any time anywhere 24/7/365.
I see little to no evidence of this awareness in the ESA community, either.
A general ignorance of or disregard for the fact that all owners/handlers are morally, ethically, and legally responsible for their animal’s behavior and well-being also pervades the ESA industry. No matter how I look at it, people incapable of or unwilling to assume that responsibility due to mental or emotional disabilities should be accompanied by another person capable of doing so for them. We live in uncertain times where emergencies may arise without warning in any public space. In addition to benefiting their people, legitimate ESAs should not interfere with the safety and well-being of others. Those who do are more than a nuisance, they’re dangerous. It’s time that those directly or indirectly involved in the ESA industry and its regulation accept this. For example, what, exactly, is the procedure for evacuating a plane during an emergency ground or water landing or evacuations of other public spaces as it relates to ESAs and their people? I have no idea whatsoever. Do you?
I’d like to think that last month’s tragic event will result in meaningful change in the ESA industry, beginning with the banning of all such animals from public transportation until this mess gets straightened out. But the magnitude of the denial within the component parts plus the amount of income and support the current all-positive illusion generates for the system and its supporters works against it. Nor can I see our current federal government coming down hard on those with fake ESA credentials who misrepresent themselves as disabled and their animals as trained, those human behavioral charlatans who provide false documentation for these fakes, or the websites that sell fake service animal paraphernalia. Nor can I envision said government developing meaningful standards to replace the mixed bag created by individual states regarding ESAs, let alone allotting the funds to enforce these.
The reality is that those places likely to generate the most confusion and anxiety for the mentally and emotionally disabled are the same ones that also generate the most confusion and anxiety for many of us: crowded public transportation systems, restaurants, concerts, shopping malls, department stores, etc. In terms of quick-fix solutions that would protect the most human-animal pairs and the public, one possibility is the creation of animal-free seating areas in public venues. This would respect the needs of those with ESAs as well as those of people with legitimate visible or invisible disabilities (such as breathing problems or animal allergies) who can’t or choose not to have service or support animals. It also would protect the disabled who choose to leave their well-behaved service animals at home rather than expose them to real of fake ESAs with potentially iffy training.
Ironically and beyond tragically, the one group this plan wouldn’t protect from poorly selected and trained ESAs or similarly deficient fake ones is the one group that legitimate service animal organizations strive to help the most: the truly disabled who have no alternative but to depend on their well-trained, legitimate service animals' assistance in public settings. This is not the way it should be.