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Photo illustration: Scott Latham

You’ve probably read this story already, but here’s the gist: A Bushwick-based performance artist named Ventiko tried to bring her pet peacock Dexter aboard a United Airlines flight from Newark to Los Angeles, claiming the enormous, ridiculous bird was an emotional support animal. United said no.

I’m a cynic, but I suspect that a person named Ventiko who identifies as a performance artist might not have the purest intentions when trying to bring a large, ostentatious bird into a cramped metal tube full of 200 human bodies squished into unpleasantly tiny, elbow-to-elbow torture zones, all because she allegedly needs emotional support. It seems less like that and more like, I dunno, a piece of performance art?

But even if Ventiko legitimately needs the psychological assistance of a creature that, on average, weighs 11 pounds and extends from beak to tail for seven noisy feet, the whole industry of emotional support animals (ESAs) seems pretty fishy. Unlike registered service animals, which can be only dogs or mini-horses that undergo specialized task-based trainings, any animal can be an ESA if its owner obtains a doctor’s note and pays a $130 fee. ESAs aren’t limited in size or species, either. Per the federal rules espoused on ESAregistration.org, anything from a hamster to a boa constrictor can be registered. And they can fly. According to a Washington Post article from January, “Federal guidelines specify that airlines must permit passengers with disabilities to board with trained service animals or emotional-support animals of many stripes, regardless of the animal’s potential to ‘offend or annoy’ others on the plane.”

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Airlines still have some discretion to keep “unusual” service animals that pose a threat (like snakes and spiders) from boarding, so you can thank airlines for keeping comfort cobras out of the middle seat. But isn’t the part that disregards “an animal’s potential to ‘offend or annoy’ ” disconcerting enough? Air travel is already kind of a zoo without any exotic animals, and anyway, have you ever been around a peacock? If you could somehow turn a party horn into a hysterical old lady getting robbed by a scary clown, that’s the noise peacocks make. Dexter’s screams of bloody murder might be soothing to Ventiko, but why does her emotional relief take precedence over everyone else’s? I mean, if she can get a permit to carry a goddamn peacock, can’t she get a prescription for Xanax?

Maybe a scrip for happy pills is not the best suggestion when we live in an era of rampant overmedication, but the research into ESAs’ therapeutic efficacy is still new and inconclusive, casting further shade on people who bring weird pets onto flights because they can’t deal with the rigors of airborne transportation, which, for millions of other people, is an entirely tolerable experience. Instead of bringing a living carry-on that carries the potential to shit or piss on a seatmate or bite him, can’t ESA owners try to be a little less fragile for a few fucking hours? Flight attendants can still make you a Bloody Mary, for goodness’ sake, and there are plenty of other ways to mellow out between Dallas and Sacramento that aren’t covered in feathers or scales. 

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