• U.S.

Comfort Creatures

8 minute read
Josh Sanburn

Petey the pig contains multitudes. He is a beloved member of the Forgione household in suburban Whitestone, Queens. He is a bona fide form of prescription medicine. He is an enemy of the New York City department of health. And on a spring afternoon walk with his owner, Danielle Forgione, 1-year-old Petey is just a pig pursuing wholesome piggish endeavors: snorting, grazing, rooting through the dirt, searching out bugs.

Petey is certified as an emotional-support animal (ESA), and Forgione could use the support. Her father has brain cancer, her brother was killed in a motorcycle accident in March 2012, and she is a stay-at-home wife and mother raising six children, ages 3 to 15. Last year, Forgione was diagnosed with clinical depression and anxiety; her physician prescribed antidepression medication, but Forgione felt wary about possible side effects. Her therapist suggested a different kind of treatment, in tandem with regular counseling: a pet.

Because one of her sons is allergic to dander, dogs and cats were out. But Forgione always loved pigs. (In her living room sit 6-in. porcelain statuettes of pigs with angel wings. There’s a pig cookie jar atop her refrigerator. Forgione’s cell phone doesn’t ring–it oinks.) So in April last year, she visited a breeder in upstate New York and brought home now 40-lb. Petey.

For pets like Petey to be certified as ESAs, all that’s required is a note from a mental-health professional stating that their owners need an animal to help alleviate their symptoms. But Petey’s ESA status doesn’t excuse him from New York City’s health code. When Forgione moved Petey into her co-op, she didn’t realize that the city forbids keeping pigs in residential buildings. When one of her neighbors complained that Forgione was harboring a farm animal, representatives from the health department began making unannounced visits to inspect the apartment.

In November, the city gave Forgione an ultimatum: Relocate Petey or move out. If she does neither by July 1, Petey may be euthanized. Suddenly, the porcine remedy for the family’s woes had become yet another source of heartache. “We don’t want to lose him,” says Forgione, 33. “He’s been such a great addition. Honestly, he just cheers you up. He’s so fun. He cuddles. He sleeps in bed with my son. It’s a positive distraction. I feel like, How many things are going to be taken away from my family?”

But it’s far from certain that the forgiones will actually lose Petey. The dispute over his legality has garnered national news attention just as ESAs are gaining popularity as alternatives or complements to more traditional treatments for mental illness. The National Service Animal Registry (NSAR), an organization that has certified service and emotional-support animals since 1995, registered about 7,000 ESAs last year. Those numbers have quadrupled over the past four years, according to CEO Tim Livingood.

With approval from a physician or therapist, NSAR has certified not just dogs (which account for most ESAs) but also cats, pigs, birds, mice, rats, hedgehogs, iguanas, rabbits and goats. With an NSAR-endorsed animal, owners can obtain vests, patches and ID cards that can help them prove to airlines or housing providers that they have a legitimate ESA.

Livingood acknowledges that certification standards for ESAs are far less stringent than those for service animals that aid people with visual impairments and other physical disabilities. ESAs are also different from psychiatric-service dogs, which are often used to rehabilitate veterans with posttraumatic stress disorder or depression but trained to perform tasks for their owners. ESAs, by contrast, “don’t need to be trained,” he says. “It’s their very presence that ameliorates the negative effects of a person’s disorder.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other authorities have established that the presence of a pet has positive health benefits. Simply petting a dog, for instance, generally decreases blood pressure and heart rate and appears to raise levels of serotonin, the neurotransmitter associated with feelings of happiness and well-being.

These physiological responses have never been fully explained. Linda Porter-Wenzlaff, who teaches animal therapy at the University of Texas Health Science Center and also has a private psychotherapy practice, says interacting with domesticated animals may return us to a more elemental state of existence. “One of the things that animals do for us is externalize our focus,” she says. “So if we’re stewing about something or concerned or anxious or worried, they bring us back to the here and now.”

These positive effects might be why Louisville basketball star Kevin Ware adopted a puppy days after suffering a gruesome leg injury on the court that will require extensive physical rehab. (“We named him Scar to represent my struggle,” Ware posted to Instagram on April 2.)

Of course, regular pet owners like Ware get the same benefits as those with a certified ESA–they just don’t have a doctor’s note. That gray area causes confusion and even abuse of laws protecting ESAs. In the mid-2000s, New York City restaurant owners started noticing an influx of customers with “service” dogs that didn’t seem to provide any obvious service. In two incidents on different airlines, flight attendants puzzled over how to accommodate the presence of emotional-service goats in the cabin. Complicating the issue further was the growing diversity of critters aiding people with physical disabilities: boa constrictors that warn their owners of oncoming seizures; capuchin monkeys that help quadriplegics eat and drink; parrots that verbally calm owners who suffer from bipolar disorder.

In 2011 the Department of Justice redefined what constitutes a service animal under the Americans With Disabilities Act to exclude ESAs. They are still protected under the Air Carrier Access Act, which allows ESAs in airplane cabins, and the Fair Housing Act, which requires housing providers to make reasonable accommodations for owners of ESAs, even in otherwise no-pet housing.

Many landlords and co-ops, however, challenge provisions for ESAs. “In many cases with a service animal, the disability is visible–you can see that someone is blind, for instance, so there are fewer questions,” says Sara Pratt, deputy assistant secretary at the Department of Housing and Urban Development. “With emotional-support animals, they are helping people with mental or emotional disabilities,” which are often invisible. “So there’s a skepticism there.”

That skepticism intensifies when non–ESA owners must share close quarters with ESAs. Livingood says airlines are allowed flexibility and discretion on a case-by-case basis: they can require that the animal be caged, placed under the seat or even relocated into cargo. Likewise, property owners and managers can evict a disruptive ESA, but in doing so, they also risk discrimination lawsuits.

Case in point: Kendra Velzen, who was diagnosed with chronic depression nine years ago, enrolled at Grand Valley State University in Michigan in 2010. She planned to attend with her ESA, a guinea pig named Blanca, but the school balked. Bringing Blanca into the dormitory was against school policy.

“I presented them with a doctor’s letter because I knew the law protected my right to have this animal,” says Velzen, now 29. She eventually took legal action against the school. Last month, she won a $40,000 settlement affirming her right to have an ESA on the Grand Valley campus.

As petey the pig’s legal battle drags on, Danielle Forgione is trying to sell her home in a still slow market and worries she won’t make her July 1 deadline. Her kids have offered to sell their toys to help with the move, but it’s all about finding a buyer. Meanwhile, her co-op board has sent her eviction papers. Forgione has been in touch with New York state senator Tony Avella about overturning the city’s ban on pigs, but time is running out for Petey.

Despite the stress and sadness brought on by an arrangement intended to alleviate stress and sadness, Forgione has no regrets and isn’t backing down. “I feel like we’re teaching our kids responsibility,” she says. “If we disposed of him like they told us to, we’d be teaching our kids to give up. I think he’s worth it.”

Recently, Forgione got word that her father wasn’t responding to chemotherapy and that his doctors were effectively ceasing his treatment. She broke down. “I was crying, and then Petey comes over to me and starts rooting his nose into my hand and laid in my lap. It was like he knew,” she says. “He makes things so much easier.”

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