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Plane Dogs 

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"I've seen a look in dogs' eyes, a quickly vanishing look of amazed contempt, and I am convinced that basically dogs think humans are nuts." 
—John Steinbeck

What does an abused
dog in Connecticut have in common with Donald Trump, Mike Pence and Jared Kushner?

Lawyers! They are all lawyered up.

Thanks to a 2016 state law, judges in Connecticut can appoint an attorney to represent a dog who has suffered cruel treatment at the hands of a human. I guess that's OK. Indigents get court-appointed lawyers. I owned a scrappy Springer Spaniel who should have had a defense attorney on retainer. Connecticut is the only state with such a law, but certain other dogs can get legal help when their rights under the Air Carrier Access Act are threatened. Attorneys at U.S. Support Animals are just a phone call away if a registered Emotional Support Animal (ESA) is hassled.

A friend's daughter-in-law has a registered ESA. It wears a vest as proof. As such, the dog is entitled to a place at her feet on the airplane when she travels. Truth be told, her ESA is a fraud. The young woman requires no more emotional support than the rest of us, and the dog radiates none from its place under the seat. It rides in the cabin because it flies there for free, she concedes privately. Without ESA certification, she would pay about $250 for the privilege.

She is not the only one to have made the cost-avoidance calculation. If you have been in an airport recently, you will have seen a lot of dogs trotting up and down the concourses looking for a place to pee. There are so many dogs, that airports have installed patches of green Astroturf to accommodate them. I saw one such "relief station" in Philadelphia equipped with a fake fire hydrant for leg-lifters. In another airport, a silver-haired grandmother pushed a caged cat around in a wheelchair. She skirted two middle-aged women, each with a snub-nosed dog in her lap, posing selfies merrily as they waited to board a Southwest flight. I found myself speaking for the animals: This is nuts!

"Any animal can be an ESA. Federal law does not require these animals to have any specific training, and you do not have to be physically disabled to have an ESA," according to the U.S. Support Animals website. No doubt someone on the fringe is already scheming to bring a snake on a plane. In order to do that, they must present a letter signed by a "licensed mental health provider." Not surprisingly, "clinical psychologists" are advertising documents for $99 on the internet. I don't know where my friend's daughter-in-law got hers. That she lives in California may be explanation enough. When medical cannabis was legalized there in 1996, I recall critics saying that doctors were way too accommodating. Telling a doctor "I'm not feeling like myself" would get you a prescription for marijuana, critics complained.

A couple of tokes might take the jagged edge off the unpleasantness of airplane travel. People arrive at the airport expecting the worst. It is easy to find fault, to take offense, to object to an Astroturf urine absorber. I am no exception. I don't want to sit next to a cell phone blabbermouth. I don't want kids kicking the back of my seat. I don't want a barking dog within earshot. Sharing space with a cat is out. I have witnessed the asthmatic reaction that cats trigger in my wife's lungs. It is almost as bad as getting bit in the face by an ESA—as a guy was on a Delta airliner in June. In short, I take a dim view of animals on airplanes, and I am skeptical of the motives of the therapy critter crowd.

A few years ago, my mother was confined in a rehabilitation wing of a Salt Lake City hospital. It was a pretty bleak place. Rooms of pale, elderly patients, attached to machines, biding time morosely until physical therapists roused them from their beds. One afternoon, a man, a woman and a Golden Retriever waltzed in. The dog wore a red bandana around its neck, and its attendants were dressed in matching red shirts. Their chipper voices reached all the way to the nurses' station as the big dog worked the bed-bound with a nuzzle and a snuffle. When they got to my mother's room, they announced that it was the dog's last day on the job. Retirement was ending a grand career of in-patient therapy. I playfully steered the conversation to a successor for the Golden Retriever. "How about a therapy Rottweiler?" I suggested, smiling. They looked as if they'd glimpsed Cujo, Stephen King's murderous dog, lurking under the bed. I persisted: "These bedridden folks might respond more to a growl from Spike the Rottweiler than a nuzzle from Goldie the Retriever." The threesome turned on their heels and made for the door. It wasn't my lame humor that drove them out. It was bruised egos related to the fact that the red-shirted couple, not the patients, were the principal beneficiary of the dog's hospital visits. Egoism underlies the ESA airplane dodge, too.

A growing number of self-absorbed people are exploiting a loophole in the law to save a few dollars. The Air Carrier Access Act of 1986 was intended to benefit persons with disabilities. It was not intended to benefit the parsimonious. To allow this sleeping dog to lie is nuts.

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