As emotional support animals become more popular, Oahu condo associations struggle to separate the real from the fake.
Housing on the Hawaiian Island of Oahu has always been tough for pet owners. The crowded island is dominated by condominiums, many of which prohibit pets. Restrictions are put in place because of close proximity to neighbors and sanitation challenges, but service animals, including guide dogs and emotional support animals, are exceptions to the rules.
The Federal Fair Housing Act requires property managers and landlords to allow emotional support animals as long as the tenant shows documentation.
Condo associations do what they can to accommodate tenants with legitimate needs, but a recent rise in unusual service animals has many people doubting the legitimacy of the process. The animal owners present so-called proof in the form of certificates bought online as a way to demand the right to keep their animals regardless of no-pet policies. To prove the absurdity of the system, Richard Emery, who teaches fellow real estate professionals, performed an experiment.
He went online to one of the many sites claiming legitimacy with the intent of certifying his pet pygmy elephant named Donut as an emotional support animal. In reality, the elephant doesn't exist, and Emery has no need for an emotional support animal. But he went through the process and followed the steps to verify a mental disability. In the end, he was offered official-looking paperwork giving him the right to keep his elephant with him regardless of his condo's pet policy. For an extra cost, the company wanted to send his imaginary elephant an emotional support animal vest.
Emery's experiment is testament to how the system is being abused. He told Civil Beat:
"Any person with a legitimate disability should be able to have a service animal to help them and everything else they need to make their life easier. But accommodation should not be given to people who are manipulating the law to keep a pet in housing where pets are prohibited."
Unfortunately, there is no official registry for emotional support animals or service dogs. The lack of government involvement and regulation has held the door wide open for scammers to take advantage of the system. And Hawaii's condo associations are stuck in the middle. John Morris, a condominium law specialist says,
"This 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."
A housing complex in Hawaii Kai, Villa Marina, is facing this exact dilemma. The association restricts undomesticated animals from being housed in their townhomes, but tenant Sabrina Crooks is claiming her two chickens are emotional support animals. The chickens, named Shoyu and Musubi, have documentation from an online source to back up her claims.
The chickens first appeared on the property last year. But after neighbor complaints, they disappeared for a few months. They soon returned and were seen freely roaming the premises. But this time, Crook was prepared. She presented the documentation, and Villa Marina wasn't sure what to do. They took their case to the state Disability and Communication Access Board for advice, but the situation was a first for everyone. Francine Wai, the board's executive director, said in an email to condominium rights expert Scott 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."
Crook claims to be allergic to dogs and cats, and that's why she has her support chickens. She told Civil Beat that exactly how her chickens help her emotionally is confidential medical information. She explained;
"The chickens are so sweet and so much fun. I take them to the beach and the park with me."
The line between a pet and an emotional support animal has become blurred. Emotional support animals are not required to learn helpful tasks or obedience like service dogs, and distinguishing between the real and the fake has brought up a serious ethical issue. People with legitimate service animals are being embarrassed and questioned, and fakers take advantage of the system for their own gain.
Many believe that the only way to stop the abuse of the emotional support animal system is to instate an official federal registry with legitimate requirements and guidelines. In 2014, a bill was introduced to help identify fake service animals, but it was soon dismissed.
What do you think about fake emotional support animals? Let us know in the comments.
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