Service or disservice: Benefits and abuses of the service animal system

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Canines, felines and even birds have moved in across the country to areas that typically restrict pet ownership. Many pet owners would do anything to avoid separation from their furry friends.

Over the past couple of years, a “life hack” has been circulating around social media giving people the advice to register their pets as emotional support or “companion” animals so it will be illegal for landlords to refuse them rental. Pet owners pay a small fee, order a certification kit and obtain a note from a health professional recommending a service animal.

One problem is that these notes can easily be obtained from online medical services, which have the patient check off symptoms, after which a letter of recommendation is formulated. Fabrication is simple.

In Utah, misrepresentation of a service animal is considered a Class B misdemeanor and is punishable by up to six months in prison and/or a fine of one thousand dollars.

While this law is in effect, the line between service animal and emotional support animal is fuzzy, so it is often difficult to enforce.

Even though one may be able to fabricate the need for an emotional support animal with no legal ramifications, those with legitimate need for a service or emotional support animal can find this abuse of the system insulting. One such person is finance major Racquel Jeppesen.

After consulting with her own medical professionals and working with SAAVI, Jeppesen was able to register her dog, Bensen, as a certified service dog. Bensen helps Jeppesen cope with anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder related to an event in her past. She says Bensen can sense when she is stressed. When she starts to fidget or breathe irregularly, Bensen comes to her side for comfort.

“I talk to him and pet him and kind of give myself a pep talk like, ‘We’re both here. We’re fine.’”

Jeppesen believes adopting Bensen has been the best thing she has done to cope with her anxiety and PTSD. She worries, though, that abuse of the service animal system will eventually make it more difficult for those with a legitimate need for a service animal to obtain one.

Beyond that, Jeppesen said she thinks this type of fabrication is counter-intuitive to ending the stigma surrounding mental health.

Jeppesen lives at Bridger Pointe apartments in Logan, which she says has been “very accommodating” of her service animal — they allow pets, anyway. Her past residences were also understanding that her need was legitimate, and simply required her to fill out a few forms and show a proof of medical need for the animal.

When it comes to fraudulent claim of a service or emotional support animal, however, landlords are not as understanding.

Local landlords Megan and Andrew Ostler said they’ve had trouble with tenants who claim to need emotional support animals.

The Ostlers do not allow pets in their rental units because Andrew is allergic to dogs. According to the law, however, the Ostlers’ hands are tied. Eventually, they said, these tenants chose to move out because interacting with their landlords was difficult due to the allergy.

Another Logan landlord, Steve Burton, said he has had countless issues dealing with renting to those with support animals. Though Burton acknowledged that service animals could be legitimate aids for those with disabilities and mental health issues, he also said he believes many renters claim their animals as support animals just so they can keep them in their rental unit.

The main problem, Burton said, is that emotional support animals are not always trained, whereas certified service animals go through rigorous training to ensure good behavior. Untrained animals are rough on home furnishings and can cause significant damage.

Burton recounted a situation where a cat had urinated all over the edges of a room of carpet. The carpet was so soaked that the wood started to rot and had to be replaced along with the carpet.

He also told of an incident where a dog had been locked in the bathroom and chewed off about a quarter of the door. He said he believes these incidents not only occur because the animals are untrained, but because the animals may have a lower quality of life than pets of a homeowner. When pets are confined to a small rental unit with little or no yard area, Burton believes they tend to act out. Full-fledged service animals like Jeppesen’s dog are permitted to travel everywhere with their owners — including to class, since they have undergone proper certification and training. Emotional support animals, however, are not allowed this same access, and in turn spend large amounts of their time at home. Burton thinks that animals being left alone for these long periods of time also contributes to damage.

While landlords are not allowed to charge owners of emotional support animals extra rent money, they are entitled to use their deposit money to cover the cost of damages, and may charge extra fees if the damage exceeds the amount of the deposit. Burton reports that, in some cases, the damage is so severe that the deposit does not cover repair costs. As many tenants are low-income college students, they may be unable to pay for the damage, which can lead to a suit in small claims court.

“They think they’re getting this awesome deal, but they’re just setting themselves up for small claims court,” Burton concludes.

This legal loophole has left Burton with feelings of skepticism and damaged trust.

As for on-campus housing, service animals and emotional support animals are permitted, but with strict guidelines. These animals must be properly vaccinated and licensed. In addition, owners are required have the animal under their supervision at all times. Animals must be kept inside, unless being walked with leash and supervised outside. If tenants fail to follow these rules, they risk removal of the animal or their own eviction. As per Utah law, students are also expected to exercise honesty in registering a support animal.

melodyj300@gmail.com

@melodyj300

Photo by Matt Halton

 


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