Why a Service Animal Racket Vice an Industry?

Thursday, May 09, 2024

Over at Astral Codex Ten, whose author is a mental health professional, is a very interesting description of the unintended consequences of a seemingly benign government regulation.

Let's first consider the intent:

Image by joandcindy, via Wikimedia Commons, license.
Sometimes places ban or restrict animals. For example, an apartment building might not allow dogs. Or an airline might charge you money to transport your cat. But the law requires them to allow service animals, for example guide dogs for the blind. A newer law also requires some of these places to allow emotional support animals, ie animals that help people with mental health problems like depression or anxiety. So for example, if you're depressed, but having your dog nearby makes you feel better, then a landlord has to let you keep your dog in the apartment. Or if you're anxious, but petting your cat calms you down, then an airline has to take your cat free of charge.

Clinically and scientifically, this is great. Many studies show that pets help people with mental health problems. Depressed people really do benefit from a dog who loves them. Anxious people really do feel calmer when they hold a cute kitten.
So far, so good. Who would want to deprive an anxious or depressed person of such an unintrusive and simple aid as having a pet around while they navigate their lives en route to recovery?

I will not beat up the author for failing to ask the following question: What is the best way to help people who actually need emotional support animals? He simply goes with the flow on this one: Like practically everyone else these days, he assumes that the government should decide who gets an emotional support animal. Period. In every single circumstance it might come up.

The American regulatory state has been omnipresent for so long that very few people can even imagine any other way to tackle a problem like this. For most people, the only tool to solve a problem where the needs and desires of different people conflict is to enact a new government regulation.

When your only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.

The hammer here looks reasonable enough: To get your pet into places that might no want it there, all you need is a letter to the effect that you need an emotional support animal from a mental health professional.

But who wields the hammer? Or: What sort of unintended consequences follow?
But the process runs into the same failure mode as Adderall prescriptions: it combines an insistence on gatekeepers with a total lack of interest over whether they actually gatekeep. The end result is a gatekeeping cargo cult, where you have to go through the (expensive, exhausting) motions of asking someone's permission, without the process really filtering out good from bad applicants. And the end result of that is a disguised class system, where anyone rich and savvy enough to engage with the gatekeeping process gets extra rights, but anyone too poor or naive to access it has to play by the normal, punishingly-restrictive rules.

I have no solution to this, I just feel like I incur a little spiritual damage every time I approve somebody's ADHD snake or autism iguana or anorexia pangolin or whatever. [bold added, link omitted]
The problem is named in plain sight within a sample letter from a mill that people who want to carry pets around everywhere can use to get a letter:
[NAME OF TENANT] is my patient, and has been under my care since [DATE]. I am intimately familiar with his/her history and with the functional limitations imposed by his/her disability. He/She meets the definition of disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Fair Housing Act, and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.
The three laws named at the end violate the property rights and right to contract of landlords, employers, and businessmen who may not wish to deal with pets brought onto their property by random members of the general public. That is their first sin, and why they shouldn't be on the books in the first place.

A side effect of these laws is that they greatly increase the number of "service animals" people might wish to bring with them to the point that there is a cottage industry of people willing to help people get away with whatever they want -- people with legitimate needs for service animals and people with good reasons not to have pets on their property alike be damned.

Now, we are far from a time when such laws can get repealed, but let's indulge the fantasy and consider how we might solve the problem of, say, a business that wants to accommodate customers who really do need a service animal. Make them, if the owner produces a magical scrap of paper isn't the answer.

Businesses would be free to employ any of the following means from the below non-exhaustive list:
  • Personal judgement by a proprietor on a case-by-case basis;
  • Consulting a mental health professional of its own choosing whenever the matter comes up;
  • Accepting a certificate from an authority of its own choosing as to the safety and suitability of the animal.
Just as there are non-governmental standards bodies for engineers, or for dog breeders, there can be for service animal certification. These private-enterprise solutions work because they protect the ability of the people who use them to make a living in a free market. That is, they align self-interest with quality through the metric of honest profit -- which is surely how, over thousands of years, people have worked out which breeds of dog are best suited to help the blind, and how to train them.

In other words, rather than a cottage industry of con men, we'd have a legitimate industry of people helping make (actual) service animals work well for as many people as possible.

A private certification system would work, because businesses would be free to work with those who don't, say, foist snakes on their customers (as happens now) -- or even simply refuse to do business with people who bring animals to their place of business. The kind of charlatans who operate now would go out of business, and there would be a proper incentive for psychologists whose patients want a letter to give an honest appraisal or a real referral.

As it is now, on top of the widespread violations of rights we have now, observe that some of the people who need these animals can't have them, and some who just want to bring an animal with them everywhere they go get to do this.

-- CAV

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