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I Thought ESAs Were BS—Until My Dad Died

Photograph by Twenty20

I used to think that emotional support animals were ridiculous, an excuse for people to bring their yippy little pets into places they shouldn’t be. The idea that someone needed their Labradoodle on an airplane because they were stressed or depressed seemed insane—a plea for attention or special treatment. Sure, we all need comfort, but is it really necessary to bring a live animal into a restaurant or a peacock onto an airplane? I mean seriously, lady with the peacock, can’t you just have a drink at the airport bar like the rest of us?

I've never expressed these thoughts because my parents were those people. Their pug dog, Scooter, was a certified ESA (emotional support animal) with papers signed off by a psychiatrist. And although Scooter is adorable and really does bring joy to pretty much everyone he encounters, part of me couldn’t help but think: Do you really need him with you? It seemed like a way to buck the system and to break the rules of common courtesy.

I remember walking into a catering hall for a family friend’s retirement party and seeing the staff do a double-take as Scooter made his way past the buffet and sat down under the table at my parents’ feet. When I had to explain to the other guests why he was there, I was mortified. Scooter is a sweetheart, but putting him in the same league as service animals seemed wrong. Service dogs are highly trained animals that guide people with obvious disabilities such as blindness. And while Scooter has a few tricks of his own (mainly jumping up for dog treats and licking his own testicles), I could not understand why his presence was necessary in places where dogs weren’t allowed.

Scooter is a sweetheart, but putting him in the same league as service animals seemed wrong.

My thoughts on that changed completely when my father suddenly passed away from a stroke. My mom and my siblings—and yes, Scooter—were heartbroken. Dad had always been in great health and we were unprepared for life without him. While my mom spent most of her time inside the house, grieving, I tried my best to provide support—a helping hand with household tasks, a shoulder to lean on. But the one who truly helped my mother the most in those rough first few months was Scooter.

It was as if he had been waiting to be called on, to fulfill the role that he had been given. From the day we lost my dad, Scooter was always by my mother’s side. He took to sleeping in the bed with her and when she needed her spirits lifted, he always knew just the right moment to initiate a game or do something silly to get her attention.

Caring for Scooter took on a new meaning for Mom. Following the routine of his diet, frequent walks and grooming gave her life purpose during a time when it seemed to her to have none. As someone who previously poo-pooed people bringing their dogs everywhere, I could now see that it was Scooter who got my mom out of the house. Without him by her side, she may have spent the rest of her days in bed or sitting in front of the TV. Having an emotional support animal truly helped her to rejoin society and to have a life again.

And while I still don’t think that people need a menagerie of animals to get through a two-hour domestic flight, if I see someone clutching a soft, furry creature in the seat next to me, I’ll understand why. And maybe even offer to buy them a drink.

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