It is a sign of how silly it’s become when some Oahu residents are claiming that their pet chickens or even a pygmy elephant are emotional support animals.
And the animal owners are offering proof with bogus papers easily obtained online to push back against anyone who challenges them.
Condo associations and rental property managers are increasingly frustrated as more and more people demand the right to keep the pets in condominiums and rental units which prohibit pets.
“All of this is getting way out of hand,” says Richard Emery, who teaches continuing education classes to real estate professionals.
To make a point of how crazy it has become, Emery applied for and received official looking papers to prove he needed emotional support from a pretend pygmy elephant he called “Donut.”
The pygmy elephant did not exist but Emery was able pass an online test to supposedly verify his own mental disability to get papers for his elephant.
And for more money, Emery was offered an “emotional support animal” vest for his pretend pygmy elephant.
“This really is an abused process,” he says.
Emery says he is a strong supporter of legitimate service animals.
“Any person with a legitimate disability should be able to a have a service animal to help them and everything else they need to make their life easier,” he says. “But accommodation should not be given to people who are manipulating the law to keep a pet in housing where pets are prohibited.”
The federal Fair Housing Act allows emotional support animals if the animal owner shows documentation from a mental health specialist to say they have a disability and their animal is needed to help mitigate their disability.
And airlines by federal law must allow passengers claiming they need emotional support animals beside them to fly with their pets in the cabin if they offer written proof.
For fees as low as low as $64, dozens of online companies with legitimate sounding names are providing certificates signed by so-called mental health professionals to claim a person has a mental disability and needs emotional support from an animal.
Interestingly, there is no such thing as an official government-sanctioned national register or a federal registry for either service dogs who legitimately guide the blind and help people with other disabilities or for emotional support animals.
Condominium law specialist John Morris says, “This is one of the most abused laws we have. There is almost nothing you can do to stop someone who insists their pet is an emotional support animal and that they are entitled to housing accommodation. It is a really depressing because the law is so abused.”
Morris says when condominium associations go to the Hawaii Civil Rights Commission to complain that a pet owner is allegedly abusing the Fair Housing Act, he says they almost never prevail.
Bill Hoshijo, the commission’s executive director, says condominium associations in the past have prevailed and reached settlements to prohibit certain so-called emotional support animals, but he was unable to offer statistics to show how often it has happened.
“Accommodation should not be given to people who are manipulating the law to keep a pet in housing where pets are prohibited.” — Real estate educator Richard Emery
One of the most unusual cases of emotional service animals came to the attention of state officials recently when Hawaii Kai resident Sabrina Crooks insisted that her pet chickens named Shoyu and Musubi have a right to live at the Villa Marina condo complex.
Crooks was able to get certification online and a doctor’s letter to verify that the two chickens were necessary to her emotional health.
In a phone conversation, Crooks told me she is allergic to dogs and cats, and so she purchased the two chickens.
Crooks declined to tell me how her chickens support her emotional stability, saying that’s confidential medical information.
“The chickens are so sweet and so much fun,” she said. “I take them to the beach and the park with me. And chickens are becoming kind of trendy now in terms of sustainable living. They are not only companions but they provide food by laying eggs.”
Here is the certificate Crooks received online for her pet chicken named Shoyu. Musubi, her other chicken, has its own certificate. The certificates are on file with the state disability board.
Crooks’ request came to the attention of the state Disability and Communication Access Board when Villa Marina, where she owns her townhouse, sought advice from the board because the Villa Marina prohibits non-domestic animals.
Some of the other residents complained about the noise from the chickens.
Condominium rights expert Scott Sherley emailed the state on behalf of Villa Marina to find out what the condo could do about the chickens.
Francine Wai, the executive director of the board, emailed back to Sherley: “It would be funnier if it were not so pathetic that there are organizations making money by ripping off folks, knowing full well that this is a scam. And the condos and businesses are caught in the middle.”
Wai says up until now she has never had an inquiry about an emotional support chicken.
Her board is the state agency, which advocates for and provides technical assistance for individuals with disabilities.
She says the abuse of people claiming they have emotional support animals is on the rise as more and more people find out how to get phony certificates on the internet.
Wai says her office receives more calls about service animals than any other topic.
She says part of the problem is people are unclear about the difference between a service animal and an emotional support animal.
Service animals are protected by the Americans With Disabilities Act. A legitimate service animal can be only a dog or a miniature horse. Service animals are trained to do specific tasks for a person with a disability. The tasks include guiding a blind person, pulling a wheel chair, retrieving dropped items, helping a hearing impaired individual or alerting a diabetic to take their insulin.
Service dogs are allowed to go into public facilities and accommodations including restaurants and stores. A service dog’s owner cannot be questioned about his or her disability.
There are only two questions that anyone can ask a service dog owner if their disability is not obvious:
Is your animal required because of a disability? And what task or work has your animal been trained to perform?
Emotional support animals are not considered service dogs under the ADA. Public facilities are not required by law to allow emotional support animals into their facilities.
But under state and federal law, with credible documentation from a mental health provider, a person can receive housing accommodation for their emotional support animal under the Fair Housing Act and the right to take their animal with them in the passenger section of a plane under the Air Carrier Access Act.
Emotional support animals do not have to be trained to do tasks.
Wai says in proving the need for an emotional support animal in housing or to fly in the passenger section of a commercial air carrier, “The threshold is not very high.”
Wai thinks the only way for people with phony service and emotional support animals to be stopped will be the creation of a federal system to register legitimate service animals.
“The chickens are so sweet and so much fun. I take them to the beach and the park with me.” — Hawaii Kai condo owner Sabrina Crooks
Wai expects a call for a legitimate federal registry to be coming soon as more and more people with real disabilities complain about their animals being distracted or harmed by untrained, unruly phony service animals.
Wai says there are so many phony service and emotional support dogs in the community now that people with real disabilities are now being wrongfully embarrassed by people calling their legitimate working dogs “fake.”
Real estate educator Emery thinks the solution will be to make it a misdemeanor for a doctor who falsely claims a person is mentally or physically disabled and needs a service animal.
A bill was introduced in the Legislature in 2014 to curtail phony service animal abuses but it failed to gain approval.