When pigs fly: the emotional support animals taking to the skies

Luke O'Neil
According to Frontier Airlines, a squirrel doesn’t fit the definition of an emotional-support animal. Photograph: Matt Cardy/Getty Images

It would have become a flying squirrel. At least, it would have if its owner had succeeded in her bid to bring her “emotional support” squirrel onto a Frontier Airlines flight on Tuesday.

The episode is the latest in a string of attempts to introduce a menagerie of creatures to the friendly skies.

Emotional-support and service animals have long been permitted to fly free of charge and travel out of a carrier under the 1986 Air Carrier Access Act, but regulators are still attempting to figure out what types of animal should be allowed to fly.

Meanwhile, airlines are making their own rules. Frontier has a new policy, coming into effect 1 November, that stipulates an emotional support animal must be either a dog or a cat. American Airlines this summer disqualified a lengthy list of animals including amphibians, snakes, hedgehogs, non-household birds, and animals with tusks, horns, or hooves – but excluding miniature horses. A provision in the Americans with Disabilities Act stipulates that trained miniature horses, which can weigh up to 100lb, must be treated the same as a trained dog.

Part of the problem is that emotional support animals, unlike service animals who are trained to do specific tasks like lead the blind, haven’t been satisfactorily defined. Until recently, they were simply any type of animal that a passenger could demonstrate, with a note from a licensed medical professional, would comfort them during times of mental stress or anxiety.

Naturally, many travellers, hoping to avoid having their pet stored with the luggage on a flight, have tried to take advantage of that, with a variety of results, both comical and delightful, or disgusting.

Here are some of the most unusual animals passengers have tried to bring on a flight for moral support:

Peacocks

One of the reasons airlines have started to take more restrictive action on the types of creatures that qualify as emotional support animals is Dexter the peacock, who caused a fair bit of controversy when his owner, a New York-based performance artist, tried to bring him on board a United flight in January this year. The bird was rejected because of its size and weight, the airline said.

Hamsters

In February, a Florida college student was denied boarding access for her emotional support hamster Pebbles on a Spirit Airlines flight. The woman, unable to secure another form of travel, says she was told by the airline to either let it loose outside or flush it down the toilet, which she then did. They admitted they gave her incorrect information about whether or not it would be allowed on board but denied instructing her to kill it.

Pigs

In 2014, a woman carrying a pig over her shoulder was spotted on a US Airways flight from Connecticut to Washington, DC.

“Everybody was trying to surmise what it could be, because no one thought it was a pig,” Robert Phelps, who witnessed the event told CNN at the time. “Other than a Fellini movie, where would you see a person with a pig?”

After the pig, perhaps unsurprisingly, defecated on the plane floor, the woman was instructed to get off the flight.

Another pig has proven itself better behaved, even making its way into the cockpit for a tour on an American Airlines flight, as documented in an Instagram account dedicated to Hamlet the Beach Hog.

Turkeys

In 2016, a passenger flying on Delta had better luck with their emotional support foul, making it one of the first instances in history, perhaps, of a turkey managing the act of flight.

Monkeys

Also that year, a four-year-old marmoset named Gizmo managed to spend what one can only assume was a debauched weekend in Las Vegas when it was permitted to fly with owner Jason Ellis on Frontier.

“It’s a comfort feeling because he needs me just as much as I need him,” Ellis said.

Ducks

And for those who prefer the days when people dressed to fly, there is Daniel the emotional support duck. The duck, photographed on a flight outfitted in stylish red shoes and a Captain America diaper, was a regular flier at this point, but came to the media’s attention on a flight from Charlotte to Asheville in 2016 and became a bit of a celebrity.

“It’s just weird how a little six-pound duck could cause such an uproar, you know?” Daniel’s owner Carla Fitzgerald said at the time.