Peacock on a plane? Emotional support animal debate heats up in Kentucky

Service dogs, like this one, can accompany their disabled owner anywhere because they are...
Service dogs, like this one, can accompany their disabled owner anywhere because they are considered medical equipment. Emotional support animals are not. (Source: WAVE 3 News Archive)
Published: Feb. 1, 2018 at 11:52 PM EST|Updated: Feb. 2, 2018 at 12:05 AM EST
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A quick internet search turns up lots of ways people can fake having a service animal. (Source:...
A quick internet search turns up lots of ways people can fake having a service animal. (Source:

LOUISVILLE, KY (WAVE) - Ever turned a corner in a grocery or department store to find someone with a pet that doesn't appear to be a service animal?

You're not alone.

This week, United Airlines stopped a woman who was trying to put her "emotional support" animal - a peacock - on a flight.

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More emotional support animals are showing up in public, even though it's not legal in Kentucky. The issue is both confusing and controversial.

Some service animal trainers said people are bucking the system with untrained animals so they can take their pets everywhere. That move is hurting people with disabilities.

On a random night at Toys "R" Us in Lexington, some cute youngsters were walking the aisles. A group from Wildcat Service Dogs were going through drills, as they are allowed to do under federal law.

The service dogs were training to be cool and calm around people and environments they're not used to. Their University of Kentucky student trainers took pride in the goal.

"It's the opportunity to work with an animal that you know is going to one day go on and actually make someone's life better," Hunter Mitchell, a Wildcat Service Dogs Training Supervisor, said.

Mitchell is talking about people with disabilities. That's exactly why the recent confusion between service animals and emotional support animals is frustrating.

The Wildcat Service explained that there is no such thing as a service pig, service cat or service parrot.

Calm and controlled service dogs, and in a few cases miniature horses, are the only animals trained to perform service tasks for their disabled handlers.

The dogs cost thousands of dollars and are considered medical equipment for a handler with a physical or psychiatric disability. That's why they are allowed in public places under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

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Trainers with Wildcat Service Dogs said recently they have been illegally denied access to places they were once welcome, due to untrained emotional support animals misbehaving.

"Emotional support animals are pets and that's why they are not (allowed)," President of Wildcat Service Dogs Molly Mathistad said.

Still, people try to take emotional support animals everywhere.

Delta said it's overwhelmed with customer complaints about untrained emotional support animals. One passenger suffered serious facial injuries after a dog bit him.

"You might not ever think that your dog would snap at someone or bite someone or become aggressive," Mathistad explained, "but if you scare any dog enough, then they will."

Delta announced it's adding animal restrictions in March: Proof of need and vaccinations, 48 hours before flights.

The National Federation of the Blind is fighting Delta's new rules, saying they're discriminatory and breaking federal law.

For employees of businesses, spotting fakes from real service animals isn't easy. What is? Making fakes look legit. Just Google "emotional support animal" to get a certified registration letter through a quick question and answer process.

And on sites like Amazon, you can get a service dog vest for around $19 that looks official. You can get an emotional support animal tag, and even registration cards that state your rights, for $8.99.

"People automatically think you're crazy when you have an emotional support animal," Bobbi Jo Hoover, a former Louisville resident, told us.

She said she's been yelled at when taking her Border Collie Beagle mix, Pixie, into a business.

Hoover said originally she wanted to take her dog everywhere for support, "When I was traveling for work, I was trying to move into an apartment community that didn't allow dogs."

She said the move caused depression and anxiety so her doctor wrote her a note for the dog. But now, as a property manager, she admits she can see people working the system.

Hoover recalled a recent conversation with a man.

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"He said to me, 'You know, you can get your dog and register her as an emotional support animal and you don't have to pay your pet rent.'"

Since age 18, David Holton has had four service guide dogs: Simon, Brennan, Buddy, and now Roc from Pilot Dogs in Columbus, Ohio.

"Truly, they have been the greatest contributor to my independence," Holton said.

Holton, a recently retired blind judge, shared what he thinks about emotional support animals and the impact they have had on his family.

"She means the world to my parents," Holton said of his mom and dad's beloved dog Sugar.

Both of his parents have been under treatment for serious illnesses and Sugar travels with them - where she's allowed - for comfort.

Holton believes we should all live with compassion and tolerance but, added, "People need to be responsible and do the honorable thing. If you don't need to take your dog, don't take your dog."

Copyright 2018 WAVE 3 News. All rights reserved.