Guest Post by Regina Lizik
Last month, The New Yorker published an article by Patricia Marx titled “Pets
Allowed: Why are so many animals now in places where they shouldn’t be?” But
Marx’s comedic attempt to shed light on the business of fraudulent service
animals is more damaging to people with disabilities than it is to those who take
advantage of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
There are those who have made a business, or more appropriately an industry,
shilling service animal vests, certificates and other paraphernalia. There is no
doubt that these businesses reap the majority of their income from people who
do not have a disability and merely want to bring their pet into stores and
restaurants. They also money from people with disabilities who are themselves
confused about the law and also from those who are exhausted from having to
defend their service dog and their disability.
This is where Marx’s article misses the point. She presupposes that the majority
of the service animals you see are not real. They are fakes owned by
opportunistic humans who take advantage of the ADA. The last thing people with
disabilities need is for society to have even more reasons to ask us if we are
really sick, exaggerating or even faking our disabilities. This is exactly the kind of
discrimination that Marx, despite its positive intention, is encouraging.
The first case of a fake service animal that Marx cites is one of a service animal,
named Truffles, defecating on an airplane. There are no facts that state Truffles’
owner was not disabled. I hate to break it to Marx, but everybody poops – even
service animals. Service animals are not perfect. They cannot be rushed to the
bathroom at thirty-five thousand feet, which is when this incident supposedly
The piece is dripping with sarcasm, of which I don’t object, but this particular
service animals name appears to be the subject of some of this wit. Many people
believe that service animals don’t have cute names. They perform tasks. They
are perfunctory. Perfunctory things don’t have names like “Truffles.” Head’s up
world: my service animal is named Buttons and he is awesome at his job.
There are three assumptions here: 1. A real service dog wouldn’t have an
accident on an airplane. 2. Real service dogs don’t have cute names. 3. Truffles’
handler wasn’t at all devastated and embarrassed by what occurred on the flight.
By virtue of having a disability you are a walking target for discrimination. If you
have a disability that people can see, your target is bigger. It grows all the more if
you have a service animal. You see, most people have zero problem judging you
or asking you to prove your worth as a real person if you have a disability.
Recently, while at a restaurant with my service dog, two man at another table
inquired with a waitress as to why I was allowed to have a dog in the
establishment. She explained to them. They continued to protest. Eventually,
they got up and left without ordering. Buttons did nothing but sit between my
chair and the wall the entire time they were in the restaurant.
Even though I shouldn’t find what they did embarrassing, I do. They are the ones
who should be embarrassed. That’s not how discrimination works. Instead,
people with disabilities are constantly on alert that we will be judged, or even
called on in a major publication, for making one misstep. Instead of it being the
discriminators responsibility to apologize, many of us feel we must apologize for
our disability doing – well, absolutely nothing to affect their lives.
Eating in a restaurant or shopping in a store while someone’s service animal is
present is not a hardship. It does not, as Marx asserts, upset the “mental well-
being of everyone else.” What can upset your mental well-being is being in a
wheelchair and being called a phony because you stand up to grab something
from the top of a shelf. What upsets people lives is when others view your
service dog and cane as props – because, of course, real blind people can’t see
anything at all. In reality, eighty-five percent of legally blind people have some
level of vision.
Marx fosters these judgmental assertions and makes many of them herself.
While she did not interview anyone with a service dog before writing her article,
she did interview someone who, like herself, does not like animals. Jerry Saltz,
who writes for New York and refers to dogs as “dumb,” recalls an instance at
MoMA where a “smug-looking guy” and his dog were “sauntering” through the
museum. After seeing the dog sniff, Saltz assumes the animal must be about to
pee, so he immediately alerts a security guard. Of course, service dogs should
not be sniffing. If a service dog is doing this, they need more training. That being
said, it does happen, even to dogs that are professionally trained. Just like
people, sometimes service dogs mess up. Also, anyone who owns a dog will tell
you that sniffing is hardly an indication of impending pee. Of course, Saltz may
have been completely valid. The dog may have very well been disruptive. If it
was somehow touching the paintings or other art at the museum, the museum
would have been well within its rights to ask the man and his dog to leave.
The real crime, it seems, is that the dog and its handler deigned to exist. The
handler was immediately judged as smug and Saltz already assumes all dogs
Saltz’ comment reminded me of an incident this summer I was walking through
an outdoor shopping center with my service dog when a man walked by and
loudly said to his girlfriend “what’s with all these god damned dogs out here
today?” What was with my “god damned dog” was that he was god damned
helping me from smacking my left side into every thing and person that I
encountered. He never considered that, because like Saltz, he immediately
judges people who have dogs in public places.
If Marx’s intent was to inform people about the negative aspects of fraudulent
service animals, she would have been better off interviewing someone who owns
a service dog instead of someone who doesn’t like dogs at all.
Back to the incident at MoMA, according to Saltz, this was a “comfort dog.” There
is no indication of how Saltz knew this, but the animal could have been wearing a
vest stating the fact. Here is where Marx’s article is both right and wrong.
As she states in her piece, emotional support animals are not the same as
service animals. They are not allowed in restaurants or in stores that otherwise
would not allow pets. Unlike service dogs, ESAs are still considered pets under
the law. Many people with ESAs don’t actually understand this. They don’t know
the law. Should they? Absolutely. Instead of informing them about federal
regulations, Marx makes fun of people with mental illnesses such as anxiety and
She calls their emotional support animals nothing more than “blankies.” If
dismissing mental illness as childish wasn’t enough, she asserts that ESA
owners are irresponsible, allowing their dogs to slobber “all over the shallots at
I know a few people who have taken their ESAs into places they don’t belong.
Instead of demeaning them, I educate them. Sure, I could lash out at them for
making my life more difficult – except they aren’t making my life more difficult and
Marx has failed to explain how they do any more than annoy her. It’s more
productive to educate than demean.
Education really doesn’t seem to be the focus of Marx’s piece. Just as she did
not interview anyone with a service dog, she did not interview anyone with an
ESA or a reputable therapist. Instead, she faked her own documents and
corresponded with a therapist via telephone with a therapist she met on the
internet. There is nothing in her article that discusses the concrete reasons why
people, including veterans, would benefit from an emotional support animal.
There is nothing insightful, only insensitivity. Just as this article fosters the idea
that most people with service animals are liars, it perpetuates the concept that
people with mental illness just need to get over their issues.
None of this may have been Marx’s intent. I certainly hope it wasn’t. She’s fallen
into the trap that so many people fall into, even those with disabilities. We think
it’s okay to judge and make fun of the things with which we have no experience.
Something annoys us or baffles us, so why not laugh at it? It’s not serious, right?
But needing an ESA is serious. With the high suicide rates in this country, is it
really responsible to publish an article that stigmatizes people with depression as
children who still need security blankets? It would also do people well to
remember that some people with PTSD, bipolar disorder and other such illnesses
may qualify for a service animal, not an ESA.
While it is true that there are far too many people without disabilities claiming to
have service animals, Marx’s ignorance on what a service animal really is only
create more hardship for those legitimate SAs. Like many people, she cites small
“purse” dog owners as the main perpetrators of SA fraud. This is because the
only SAs most people encounter are the ones on television or in movies. These
are usually larger animals, like retrievers or german shepherds. If this is all the
entertainment industry tells us of service animals, then it must be all there is to
In reality, service dogs can be of any size, even purse dogs. Small dogs can help
with seizures, diabetes, PTSD and yes, even depression – which in some
instances requires an SA. These are only a few of the things that small dogs
Your lack of knowledge about service animals and disabilities does not dictate
reality. Unfortunately, I worry that those who read Marx’s article will be even
more embolden to insist they know can spot the fakers from the truly disabled.
More worrisome is the effect it will have on those whose SA is not a dog. The
majority of Marx’s article on the exploitation of the ADA focuses on her parading
a variety of animals through stores and restaurants as ESAs or SAs. At different
times, she uses a turtle, snake, turkey and even an alpaca. In an attempt to point
out the absurdity of the lack of federal regulations involving service animals,
which isn’t absurd at all, Marx’s article will directly affect those who use miniature
horses as service animals. Organizations, like the Guide Horse Foundation,
provide miniature horses to help the visually impaired. These animals can also
provide assistance to wheelchair bound individuals and those with autism.
Can you imagine the harassment a person with a miniature horse for an SA will
face at the hands of someone who has read this New Yorker article?
It’s true that many people are confused about the laws regarding service animals,
and disabilities in general. But the law is clear. If you don’t have a disability and
you try to pass your pet off as a service dog, you are committing fraud. If you
have an ESA and you try to take your animal into a “no pets allowed”
establishment claiming it is the law, you are committing fraud. You could go to
Educating people about the law is as simple as the paragraph above. There’s no
need to go through an elaborate experiment that does nothing more than make
jokes out of people who need emotional support animals.
The law does not require a service animal to wear a vest, though most do. Marx
notes that the organization Canine Companions for Independence wants the
government to set up a registration and certification process for service animals.
Currently, there is no registration and the law does not require certifications or
even that a professional train the SA. A registration would require people with
disabilities to register our disabilities with the government. I, and I’m quite sure
others, are rather uncomfortable, to say the list, with registering my various
disabilities on a list. Would this list be open to the public? Would it be protected
under HIPPA? These are medical conditions, after all. If it did fall under HIPAA,
as it should, what would be the point? Businesses would not have access to the
list and they shouldn’t. I don’t mind telling people that I am blind, but I do mind
people knowing all of the other disabilities my neurological condition causes.
As to training, many prefer to train their own service animals. This is within their
right. My friend Elsa S. Henry, a blind disability advocate who also suffers from
PTSD, is training her own SA. Quite often, she is accused of faking because she
is training her own SA, even though she is well within her legal right. For her,
self-training results in a deeper connection and helps her and her dog become
more in tune with one another. This is especially important in relation to the
PTSD aspect of her disability.
Additionally, some animals become SAs by accident. There are always stories of
an animal saving someone from a seizure, stroke or diabetic coma. Once that
instinct is identified and put into play, the owner may cultivate it – with or without
the assistance of a trainer.
Regardless of whether or not you train your own service dog, these animals
require hundreds of hours of training. They need high-level obedience and
While service animals may occasionally be spooked by something or catch a
sniff of something, these occurrences must be extremely rare. Once properly
trained, SAs should be seen and not heard. They need to be focused, quiet and
so obedient that they do not disrupt the people or the space around you.
Those last points are essentially requirements, but what isn’t a requirement are
the types of tasks service animals perform. What I mean by that is every person
with disabilities has unique needs and different ways to approach those needs.
Tasks are not one-size fits all. This is where it becomes difficult to have an
across the board test for service animals.
It is easy to test my SA for his ability to guide me around objects and mitigate my
depth perception issues, but that is not the case for everyone. Take for example
service animals for people with autism, a disease with so many presentations,
many of them individual to the person. How does one test for all of these
variations? Not only that, but professional trainers are expensive and not every
geographical area has a readily accessible training program.
Marx and Canine Companions for Independence are right about one thing, the
businesses that charge up to thousands of dollars for listings on a fake registry
and instant certifications should be illegal. They allow people to take advantage
of the law, they scam people with legitimate disabilities and they add to the
spread of disinformation about service animals.
Unfortunately and unintentionally, The New Yorker piece does much of the same.
It encourages people to view service animals and their handlers with skepticism
and reproach, resulting in discrimination and humiliation. Not only that, it boldly
maligns people with anxiety disorders and depression – something for which no
one should be advocating.