WASHINGTON (ABC7) -- Some flights these days look more like petting zoos than planes. But are all the so-called service animals on-board really legitimate? The 7 ON YOUR SIDE I-Team discovered loopholes allow some to game the system to allow the pets that don't want to put in the cargo hold to fly coach for free.
We discovered that with a few clicks, a few internet surveys and a couple phone calls, it's not difficult to register to bring an emotional support animal on a plane. Lags in oversight are so large, the I-Team was able to register a stuffed animal.
We named our "emotional support" dog D.B. and he may be the world's best dog. He doesn't bark. He doesn't bite. He doesn't need to be fed, or walked.
We know this stuffed dog is special, but now the 7 ON YOUR SIDE I-Team has the paperwork to prove it after putting him through the process of becoming an emotional support animal. It's a move that shocked David Williams with the Taxpayer Protection Alliance, which highlights shortcomings in government efficiency and oversight.
"I didn't realize this was even an application process or that the application process was this ridiculous," Williams said.
The process we went through with D.B. is the same one that registers real dogs, pigs, turkeys so they can be support animals and come on-board the planes you fly -- for free. It's a system the 7 ON YOUR SIDE I-Team discovered is ripe for fraud and abuse. Paul Mundell, CEO of the non-profit Canine Companions for Independence agrees.
"Unfortunately, it is. And the evidence tends to bear that out," Mundell said.
The I-Team tested the system, discovering a big problem with the federal Air Carrier Access Act. In 2003 it was changed to let people with disabilities take support pets on planes. Thirteen years later though, we discovered there's still little oversight.
"When you start accepting stuffed animals as emotional support animals, there's something wrong with the system and it needs to be fixed immediately," said Williams.
The current system allows for-profit companies to sell registrations to anyone who claims they have a disability. There is no government screening of the companies that sell the registrations. And there is no verification of the people who apply for registrations for their animals. As a result, there are plenty of people who game the system. One women who spoke to ABC7 and asked not to be identified, said she successfully registered her dog so she could travel with her in coach and live with her in an apartment complex that doesn't allow pets.
"It's selfishly working in my favor," the woman said, "But I do see that there are definitely cracks and wrinkles in the system. I just honestly find it humorous."
7 ON YOUR SIDE registered D.B. through the system, using a Colorado company called the National Service Animal Registry. The company's leader, Tim Livingood, tells the I-Team, "Because local, state and federal law requires no registration, certification or government sanction for service or emotional support animals, our services are aimed only at providing legitimately disabled persons with identification and products to minimize hassles and discrimination."
NSAR is clear on its website and in its statement to ABC7 that its products do not make customers "legally" disabled, nor do its products have any legal authority whatsoever.
On the company's website all customers have to do is click a box and say they have any one of a host of mental or emotional problems, including things like stress or fear of flying. After checking that box, customers have to agree their animal can be controlled in public, something we didn't think would be troublesome for D.B. consider he's stuffed.
NSAR charges approximately $65 for emotional support animal registration. The 7 ON YOUR SIDE I-Team paid an additional $50 for a red vest to make D.B. look official. NSAR representatives even contacted the I-Team to verify D.B.'s vest size based on the picture we provided.
Our experiment was shocking to Chris Tegeler who says he already struggles with the system designed to support people like him with actual disabilities. Of those who game the system, he said, "it undermines the whole program. It undermines the whole system."
Tegeler admits he's been cursed out on public transit and questioned about his need for a service animal because his disability is not visual. His dog, Roxy, is for issues he says you can't see. He suffers from severe anxiety and experiences balance issues linked to a stroke. For his comfort, he got a letter that lets him take Roxy wherever he travels. But he knows those letters are not hard to obtain.
"There should be more oversight," he said.
The federal government did begin to crack down on this issue in 2008, allowing airlines to require actual documentation from a licensed mental health professional or doctor if you want to take a support animal on board. But the 7 ON YOUR SIDE I-Team was able to procure one of those letters as well.
After paying $180, I answered 11 sets of questions online honestly, although no one verified her answers. Then she spent minutes on the phone with a counselor during two calls. In the next day she got a prescription letter from a counselor our team never spoke with, saying she was officially considered emotionally and mentally disabled and thereby could have an emotional support animal.
The prescription letter came courtesy of Chilhowee Psychological Services in Colorado, the service we paid, which just happens to work out of the same address as the National Service Animal Registry. The company says it doesn't disclose that relationship online, but will confirm it if asked. Chilhowee uses a stock photo for its staff and its parent company is registered in another state, with its business activity listed as "manufacturer of leather motorcycle accessories".
Paul Mundell says our experiment showcases a need to fix a problem his organization has been aware of for years. Canine Companions for Independence was among the groups that have written the Department of Justice, saying a change is needed as many people take advantage of websites to essentially violate the spirit of the law.
"By misusing them and misappropriating the legitimate rights of service dog users," Mundell said, "They're making it much more difficult for people who have disabilities and who really use and rely on service dogs."
Chilhowee Psychological Services tells the I-Team it was successfully vetted by the Department of Transportation, and that it connects clients with licensed therapists and psychologists around the country that it contracts with, including the company 7 ON YOUR SIDE worked with for its consultation. Its leadership emphasizes that anywhere from 23-35% of its clients do not qualify in any given month.
While Chilhowee is tracking its numbers, the airlines are not. They don't have to. The federal law does not require carriers to track how many emotional support animal certificates or prescription letters get used. They also do not track how many pets are bounced from planes because airline personnel believe they are bogus. But the U.S. Department of Transportation is considering whether carriers should be required to report the number of disability assistance requests they receive.