BOSTON - Support animals have become a point of contention between people who say they’re essential and critics who think owners are scamming the system.
But there’s now a new push to close a loophole.
“I had really, really bad depression and by my junior year it had gotten to the point where hospitalization was on the table,” Emerson College Freshman Jason Regner explained to Boston 25 News.
Regner says he couldn't imagine college without his emotional support dog, Noel, living in his dorm suite.
Jason joined the increasing number of students asking for permission to bring their emotional support animals on campus.
UMass Amherst says the number of comfort animals has doubled since the school implemented their policy almost three years ago.
Students who have allergies or a fear of dogs? They're told to request a room change.
“Noel is trained that when we're in the elevator, she's supposed to stand behind my legs and so that helps. But it definitely is rough with people who are afraid of dogs because it makes passing interactions difficult,” Regner admitted.
Emotional support animals are untrained pets, prescribed by a doctor to treat a psychological issue. But concerns over the legitimacy of some emotional support animals is leading to backlash. Some claim owners are cheating the system to get their pets in restaurants and on planes without paying fees.
In September, we found out just how easy it is. Just by clicking a few buttons online, we were able to obtain an emotional support animal license without seeing a therapist or mental health provider at all.
Lynn nurse Cheryl Hardnett experienced the backlash first hand when her condo board demanded she get rid of her emotional support animal, Milo, or move.
The condo board, Oceanview Condominiums, took Hardnett and her landlord, Pam Walsh, to court over the dog.
Under the Fair Housing Act, emotional support animals are explicitly protected. But a judge ruled in favor of Oceanview Condominiums, forcing Walsh to pay nearly $40,000 in fees.
Walsh is hearing impaired an on a limited income, so she may be forced to sell Hardnett’s condo.
"That's what angers me more,” said Hardnett. “It keeps me up at night. Is that we did nothing wrong. We did everything they asked. We waited two years for an application. They brought us to a meeting to give me another hurdle. Now you need to be handicapped and they still won."
Holden State Representative Kim Ferguson (R - Holden) is filing a bill, which she says will clear things up.
Ferguson notes emotional support animals are not protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act and should not be afforded the same protections as a trained service dog.
Ferguson's bill would also make getting a fake ID for your pet a punishable offense that could come with a $500 fine.
"We're hopeful they will be able to get some resolution and be able to say I know that that's not a service animal and I need to ask you to leave with your pet,” explained Ferguson. “And they will be able to have a civil infraction and a fine of up to $500 dollars."
Jason is now training Noel to be a certified service dog to make sure she stays by his side.
“If it's a person that feels like they need to have their dog with them at all times, then they really should just go through the process of getting a service dog, which has been made a lot easier,” said Regner.
Lawmakers and owners of emotional support animals alike say this isn't an issue that will go away and court cases like Pam Walsh and Cheryl Hardnett's could set a precedent.
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