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Service Or Emotional Support? A Line Worth Observing

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Controversy is swirling around Our Lady of the Lake University in San Antonio, Texas. The issue at hand? Whether or not a ferret that provides emotional, or some would say psychiatric, support for a student should be given access under the Americans With Disabilities act.

Sarah Sevick, 19, is a student at OLLU. She was given Lilly, her ferret, as a gift about a year ago. Now the ferret is being denied access at the university, resulting in Sevick filing a complaint with the U.S. Justice Department. "I'm not suing the school, and I'm not asking for money," Sevick says. "I'm just trying to get her here."

Now, as someone who uses a dog guide, I'd be the first person to defend the rights of a service animal on campus. But there is a standard concerning service animals that needs to be upheld. This ferret was originally given to Sevick as a gift. Kay, Sarah's mother, claims that, "Pretty quickly, we realized it was very responsive to her." This ferret wasn't given to Sevick with the intent of it being a service animal. I'm glad to hear that she might do better because of the animal. But if this ferret is on Our Lady of the Lake University's campus, it should be a case of common sense and not because of an emotional companion being given the same access rights as stringently trained service animals.

The benefits in question for Sevick are quite abstract. The benefit to a blind person utilizing a dog guide's assistance in navigating through life is readily apparent. There's no doubting that the dog is trained to do the job that it is doing. But this ferret, essentially, snuggles up with its owner when it senses that the owner is disconcerted. This is calming for the owner, which is great. But is it wise to give this type of animal the same access that dog guides, signal dogs, etc. receive? This ferret was originally a pet. Service animals, the ADA explicitly states, are not pets.

But let's give Sarah and Lilly the benefit of the doubt. Let's say Lilly really does help Sarah cope with her variety of mental disorders. By pursuing legal action, she's trying to set a precedent. A dangerous precedent. The ADA doesn't require any sort of official licensing or certification of service animals by government at any level. This is, perhaps, the root of the problem. But if a ruling in favor of Sevick and Lilly comes down, where is the new line drawn?

When I trained with Kerry, my dog guide, I was told many times that it wasn't the law that got Kerry into places, it was being a well-groomed, well-behaved, well-socialized dog that is quite plainly doing a job. The high standard set by existing service animals is what makes their access far less a point of contention than it could be. But what if anyone who claims to be supported during mental crises by a furry friend is given this same access with their companion? Sevick might not be using her problems as an excuse to tote her pet around with her, but given the precedent this case would set, someone else might. And all it takes is those few service animals that don't represent the whole population very well for there to be a far less welcoming attitude towards them in general.

I would consider the institution in question very insensitive towards its paying customers if they denied Lilly access if Lilly, quite obviously, is a real benefit to Sevick. I'm not close enough to the situation to make that conclusion myself. But legally forcing in one emotional support animal is asking for all sorts of people to claim emotional support as a reason for trotting anywhere and everywhere with a favored pet. And once a few untrained pets masquerade as emotionally supportive service animals, all service animals will pay the price through more hesitant and unwilling access.

All the law does is get service animals through the door. The warm reception Kerry and I receive nearly everywhere isn't because of the ADA. It's because of the reputation dog guides and similar service animals have — a reputation that's overwhelmingly positive. But a few isolated incidents are all it would take to tarnish that reputation. Suddenly, legitimate service animals are given access because the law says, not because most people generally want to allow a blind person or anyone else using a service animal the ability to function as close to normal as possible within their establishment. This would be a problem that no legal bullying could fix. The distinction between service animals and emotional support animals is there for a good reason. Hopefully the pending ruling concerning Sarah Sevick will keep that distinction intact.

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