Courtesy of The Tampa Bay Times
Published March 14, 2019
“Emotional support” animals have mauled people on planes,
given birth at airports and been flushed down terminal toilets, forcing
airlines to crack down on the pets.
Now, Florida lawmakers are converging on the latest front in the war on fake
service animals: apartments and condo buildings.
Sen. Manny Diaz, a
Hialeah Republican, wants to crack down on people who claim
their pet is an emotional support animal to get out of
paying pet deposits — or get into buildings that don’t allow
“We’ve had a problem where folks have just started to claim
these things,” Diaz said Monday. “The most egregious I’ve
seen, and I think we all saw it in South Florida on TV, was
a gentleman claiming his alligator was an emotional support
animal." (The gator, Wally, was at an assisted-living
facility in Pennsylvania, not Florida.)
Emotional support pets are not to be confused with service
animals, which are trained to carry out specific tasks and
are protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act.
But emotional support animals do have rights under the Fair
Housing Act and the Air Carrier Access Act, and people have
abused those laws to get out of paying pet deposit fees and
airline pet charges.
Often, owners are armed with a dubious certification from an
online doctor claiming they need the animal for their
emotional support. Numerous websites offer the certificates
for as little as $22.
“People go on the internet, they find a psychologist or a
therapist or whatever, never met the person, and for $99 get
to claim mental illness, and the next thing you know you
have a mental support animal,” an exasperated Sen. Kevin
Rader, D-Delray Beach said Monday. “You don’t even do it in
your name. You can do it in someone else’s name. You never
meet the person.”
Senate Bill 1128 takes aim at those dubious
certifications by requiring Floridians to instead be
certified by a real doctor that they see for other physical
or emotional ailments.
“If I wanted to claim an emotional support animal that’s an
iguana and I went on the internet, I could not get that
certified," Diaz said, "because it has to be a health care
practitioner that you’re already seeing for other things.”
Service dogs Nugget and Eleanor Rigby unexpectedly
welcomed puppies at Tampa International Airport Friday afternoon. As
their family was about to board a plane to Philadelphia, Eleanor
went into labor, welcoming her puppies in Airside F.
The fake certifications have become a “huge problem”
for apartment and condominium managers who want to verify that a potential
tenant doesn’t have to pay a pet fee, according to Amanda Gill, government
affairs director for the Florida Apartment Association.
“Oftentimes they’ll present a letter that they
literally got by paying $90 on the internet,” Gill said. “Unfortunately,
there’s no way for our onsite folks to actually verify the authenticity of
that letter. Oftentimes, when you call the person that’s listed, they don’t
answer the phone.”
Rader said he hears about it frequently from
constituents in condo communities.
“This is one of the first things they talk about, is
how all these animals are on their premises and are getting around the
(Americans with Disabilities Act) act,” Rader said. “It’s completely bogus,
and we need to root the fraud out of it.”
The bill would allow apartment managers to ask the doctor if they wrote a
letter, not why the tenant needs the animal. Falsifying the certifications
would be a second-degree misdemeanor, with a potential 60-day jail sentence
and a $500 fine.
On Monday, the bill passed its first committee stop, with bipartisan support
and the support of the Humane Society. It has two more before getting to the
Senate floor. A similar bill in the House, House Bill 721, has yet to be
Diaz cautioned afterward that the bill likely wouldn’t have an affect on how
often you see pets on airplanes, and enforcing it would still be difficult.
A dog owner himself, he said the bill should help people with real
disabilities who have been unfairly tarnished by bad actors.
“You don’t want to turn something that’s so important to people into a
joke,” he said.