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What Happens When Your Emotional Support Animal is Labeled 'Inherently Dangerous'?

What Happens When Your Emotional Support Animal is Labeled 'Inherently Dangerous'?
By Richard Dahl on September 19, 2019 7:45 AM

To Texanne McBride-Teahan, life would be unbearable without the three monkeys she relies upon for “emotional support.”

But to officials in the city where she lives, Creve Coeur, Missouri, the monkeys are “inherently dangerous” animals that are subject to banishment or severe restrictions.

In November, a municipal court there will decide whether she can keep the monkeys.

Until then, of course, we can only speculate on what the outcome might be for Ms. McBride-Teahan and her monkeys. But we can also ponder questions raised by the simian skirmish, such as: what the heck is an emotional support animal, anyway? And if a monkey qualifies, how about, say, a snake?

Legal Protections for Emotional Support Animals

Humans have long held close bonds with animals, and these relationships can take legal form. Service animals – usually dogs – have existed for many years to assist blind or otherwise disabled people. But in the last decade or so, “emotional support animals,” or ESAs, have grown in popularity.

Unlike service animals, ESAs aren’t trained to provide specific assistance. Instead, they are animals that are prescribed to assist someone suffering from depression, anxiety, or other mental health disorder simply because they provide emotional support by their existence.

While we typically think of dogs and cats as the animals that provide us the most emotional support, it's now clear that people rely on a broader range of creatures to do this than we might think.

Pushing Boundaries on What an ESA Is

In 2016, a man brought a turkey on board a Delta Air Lines flight as an ESA. Last year, a woman tried to fly on United Airlines with a peacock she claimed was an ESA – she bought a seat for the enormous bird – but this time United said no and denied boarding to both the woman and the bird.

The increasing presence of animals on flights has had an impact – last year, Delta reported an 84% increase in “animal-related incidents,” including biting and various other acts of aggression – and airline companies have responded with tighter rules. Southwest Airlines, for instance, now only allows dogs and cats.

Owners of ESAs have greater legal powers when they are away from airports, however, because they are covered under the American With Disabilities Act. When it comes to housing, for instance, an ESA is recognized as a “reasonable accommodation” for a person with a disability under the federal Fair Housing Act.

That means that the person seeking to live with the animal must have a physical or mental disability that limits their life activities and demonstrate that the animal is providing emotional support. If they can, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development says that a landlord or housing board must provide an exception to any “no pets” rules.

When Federal Disability Rights Butt Up Against Local Ordinances

In McBride-Teahan’s case, about a month after she had moved into a rental house in Creve Coeur, a neighbor spotted one of the monkeys and complained to the city. In response, the city handed Teaham-McBride a citation, pointing to its dangerous animal ordinance. That ordinance includes “non-human primate” in its list of “inherently dangerous animals” and further states that “(n)o person shall keep, harbor, own, or knowingly allow (an ‘inherently dangerous animal’) to be in or upon the person’s property.”

The problem the city faces, however, is that McBride-Teahan has a physician’s letter certifying that she suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder stemming from a childhood incident and that her monkeys are registered as ESAs.

She’s also saying that the city is using far too broad a brush in painting all “non-human primates” as “inherently dangerous.” She says that her three monkeys – a black-capped capuchin, a bonnet macaque, and a patas monkey – pose no physical threat.

So what will become of the monkey business in Creve Coeur? The court may provide an answer in November.

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