Reptiles as Service Animals?
This discussion is going around again, so I thought I’d make a post talking about it. In a nutshell: In the United States, snakes, lizards, tortoises, or any other reptile cannot be service animals. While their interaction can be incredibly therapeutic and while you may have one as an emotional support animal, your snake cannot perform tasks and is not protected by the ADA to have complete public access. The only legal recourse you have with an emotional support animal is airline travel and access to all housing. Online service animal registries are scams. The only way to officially have an animal classified as an emotional support animal is by talking to a licensed, accredited mental health professional and getting a letter stating that your animal is an emotional support animal.
See, here’s the thing with ESAs. They are not trained service animals. It’s wonderful that your snake is therapeutic for you, but comparing your snake to an intensely trained guide dog for the blind or a psychiatric service dog is like comparing oranges to desk chairs. Oranges are great, desk chairs are great, but they aren’t the same thing and if you tried to eat a desk chair or sit on an orange, it wouldn’t go so well for you.
First, to pet owners who don’t have a mental disorder but don’t like to leave their pet places: I know you might not want to be separated from your pet. I get that. But pet ownership is a privilege, not a right, and while this might upset some people, please stop trying to take untrained animals places where they don’t belong. Stories come out constantly about somebody’s pig or poorly-trained dog or llama or whatever being badly behaved in public. If these abuses keep up, odds are good these privileges will get revoked. There was already a revocation of public access for ESAs back in 2011. Please keep in mind that while you might adore your reptile, many people are afraid of them- and, more importantly, your reptile might be extremely stressed out by a trip to the store. Please put your pet’s needs first. Your lizard will be fine without you for a few hours.
Next, to people whose reptiles provide therapeutic responses: If you don’t feel comfortable traveling without your snake, then get the letter. You are a person who needs an emotional support animal. Know your rights and your needs! If you aren’t currently speaking with a mental health professional, you should look into it. Mental healthcare doesn’t have to be expensive; in urban areas, there are often reduced cost clinics. Colleges and high schools should have mental wellness staff. Do not register your animal online. Emotional support registries are scams.
A note for people who might not know the difference between a psychiatric service animal and an emotional support animal: A psychiatric service animal (like a dog for somebody with ptsd) is not an emotional support animal. Service animals like that are trained to do tasks, which can include therapeutic pressure and getting a person out of a triggering situation. According to the ADA, business owners can ask two questions about service animals. They can ask if the animal required because of a disability- this is a yes or no question and you are not required to answer what kind of disability you have. They can also ask what work or task has the animal been trained to perform, and if you have an actual service animal, you will know the answer to that question. Getting a service animal is tough. There’s a lot of time, work, and money that goes into training and working with a service animal, and people with service animals are going to be well-versed in the knowledge of what their animal can and cannot do. Providing emotional support is not a task. Furthermore- and this is especially a problem with dogs- a badly-behaved ESA can set service animal owners up for failure. A service dog is trained not to snap or bark except when necessary; they are basically as invisible as possible for the most part. But if an ESA poops on the floor or bites a patron, businesses are often much less tolerant of service dogs. While it’s illegal to discriminate based on the presence of a service dog, do you really think that stops businesses? They’d often rather pay a fine than a lawsuit from somebody who got bitten by a dog that was where it shouldn’t have been.
A final note: I know this might sound harsh. I’m not trying to say that people with ESAs don’t need them. Mental disorders are absolutely real and you should have full access to the treatment that works best for you. If that treatment is a therapy snake, great! If your snake helps you in a high-anxiety situation like a test, arrange things with whoever’s administering the test. If you take one thing away, let it be this: ESAs are not service animals. Don’t just assume you can take an ESA everywhere because that can get you in trouble and cause major problems for other people who have ESAs or service animals. Know the difference between ESAs and service animals and keep them in mind when you’re thinking about taking your animal someplace.