Miniature horses are in, for now. But capuchin monkeys are on shakier ground.
The U.S. Department of Transportation said Wednesday that it will work to make sure “the most commonly used service animals (i.e., dogs, cats, and miniature horses)” are still allowed on flights, despite increased efforts by airlines to crack down on fraudulent assistance critters of all kinds.
Reports of maulings, allergic reactions, faked medical necessity forms and other abuses have poisoned the environment for responsible travelers who legitimately need service animals. The problems have spurred major airlines, including Delta, United and Alaska, to tighten their rules for psychiatric service animals and emotional support companions.
And they have prompted a major rewrite – formally launched Wednesday with a request for public comments – of the Transportation Department’s own rules on what types of animals can fly, under what circumstances and with what type of documentation.
While “airlines are never required to accept snakes, reptiles, ferrets, rodents, sugar gliders, and spiders,” the department said Wednesday, it “intends to exercise its enforcement discretion by focusing its resources on ensuring that U.S. carriers” continue to welcome canines, felines and smallish equines.
Beyond those three, the Office of Aviation Enforcement and Proceedings “may take enforcement action against U.S. carriers for failing to transport other service animals on a case-by-case basis,” it said.
The department laid out its interim enforcement priorities to provide temporary clarity while its broader rewrite of service animal rules is being completed.
One big question in that overhaul is which species should be allowed.
The industry group Airlines for America has called for the Department of Transportation to “define ‘service animals’ as trained service dogs, which would harmonize DOT’s definition with that of the more generally applicable Americans With Disabilities Act.” The group is also seeking to limit the types of emotional support and psychiatric service animals that must be accommodated “because these animals cause the majority of in-flight disruptions.”
Groups advocating for those with disabilities have argued for continued flexibility, saying there should be a case-by-case look at which animals are appropriate companions. But Delta, for example, has outlined prohibitions on “animals with tusks, horns or hooves,” among others.
Ten disability rights organizations noted in a February letter to Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao that “miniature horses have hooves.” Such a prohibition “without considering a hooved animal on a ‘case-by-case basis’ is on its face a violation of the Department’s regulations and guidance,” they wrote.
The department’s Advisory Committee on Accessible Air Transportation, established in 2016, couldn’t resolve the issue of which species should be allowed.
“The discussion about the type of animal that should be recognized as a service animal focused on dogs, miniature horses, capuchin monkeys, and cats,” according to a document describing the Department of Transportation’s plans for drafting new rules released Wednesday. “While there was no agreement on whether all the animals should be recognized as service animals, there was agreement that other animals should not be allowed as service animals.”
The document noted that “miniature horses have specific features that make them a better choice for some persons with disabilities — longer working life, allergen avoidance, religious conformance, and soundness of structure for mobility work.”
Capuchin monkeys would come under Wednesday’s call for airlines to transport “other service animals on a case-by-case basis.”
The small primates help people with paraplegia and quadriplegia with crucial tasks at home, advocates say. “Those who support recognizing capuchin monkeys as service animals,” the department said, “pointed out that they can perform manually dexterous work or tasks that dogs and miniature horses cannot.”