Channel 2 Investigates

Fake service animals: 'Like parking in handicap spot when you're not'

ATLANTA — Pigs, roosters, geese and miniature horses are flying on planes.

More people are claiming their untrained pets are emotional support animals so they can fly for free.

Our Channel 2 Action News investigation found travelers that have concerns about the trend.

“We pay fares to have a human next to us, not an animal. And that’s the way I feel about it,” Thyron Spears said.

“It’s not fair to the other passengers. It’s not fair to the crew. It’s just really sad,” Sergio Oliveria said.


Sara Nelson, the president of the Association of Flight Attendants, says they have seen an increase in both trained and untrained animals in the last four or five years.

And it’s not just dogs.

“We’ve gotten reports of animals on board, anything from a pig, to a rooster to a goose,” Nelson said.

She told Channel 2’s Wendy Corona that untrained animals pose a serious safety risk.

“They could impede exit of passengers who need to get off the plane very quickly,” Nelson said.

Four weeks ago, a U.S. Department of Transportation committee voted to end talks on service animals.

But the DOT says it’s working to write new rules.

"It's like parking in a handicapped parking spot when you're not handicapped," one traveler said.


It’s easy to buy a service animal vest.

Channel 2 Action News bought one online for $99.

A Channel 2 Action News producer filled out an online survey, and paid $149, and got a letter, allowing him to travel with an emotional support animal, from licensed therapist Carla Black.

The letter states the producer “is my patient and I am currently treating him for a mental and emotional disability.”

But Black never talked to him -- in person, on the phone or by Skype.

We traveled to California to ask Black about the letter. When we showed up for our appointment, no one answered. Our sister station confronted her, but she did not respond to their questions.

We contacted the California Board of Behavioral Therapists and sent them a copy of the letter. They have opened an investigation into Black.


We went to Florida, where lawmakers passed a law in 2015 to crack down on fake service animals.

It allows only dogs and miniature horses to serve as service animals.  Violators face a $500 fine and up to 60 days in jail.

Georgia has no law that punishes fakers.

Florida state Rep. Jimmie T. Smith championed the issue after learning about how service animals help veterans.

“Every time you fake a service animal, you’re injuring a real veteran or non-veteran,” Smith said.

Smith turned to Carola Borden, the founder and executive director of Guardian Angels Medical Service Dogs, for help.

We toured her facility in Williston, Florida, and saw how real service dogs are trained.

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, there are only two criteria for a service animal.

Is the recipient disabled and does the animal perform a behavior related to the disability?

“So the dogs, they’re just like a piece of medical equipment. They just happen to have a heartbeat,” Borden said.

But it’s easy for fakers to take advantage of the current law.

Borden and Smith say they want to help change federal law to require service animals to be properly trained.