It’s 10:02 p.m., and I’m waiting on my therapist.
Our sessions don’t take place in an office. We just meet on my back deck. I don’t have any copay, but I am expected to fork over my mini marshmallows. And I’m not going to lie on a couch. Instead, I’ll be sitting on the ground so that I can greet my confidante at eye level.
My therapist is named Tank. He’s a North American raccoon who, I’m guessing, weighs in at 25 pounds without his winter fluff and blubber. He’s lumbering and lovable, and he’s one of about two dozen raccoons I’ve come to know and bond with over the past half-decade.
I know, I know. A lot of people might see a hungry raccoon in the backyard and grab a broom instead of a powdered donut. Raccoons can be dangerous. They’re agents of mischief, not to mention rabies. And they show no shame when pigging out on literal trash. But if it weren’t for these unique, misunderstood animals, I don’t know how I would’ve climbed out of a dangerous and exhausting bout of depression.
Since my neighborhood raccoons have embraced me as a friend — or at least a nonthreatening snack dispenser — I’ve become well-versed in their quirks. I’ve also come to rely on them for emotional support. I could call them my emotional support animals, or ESAs. But it’s a little more complicated than that.
There’s a good chance you’ve seen an emotional support animal somewhere, or at least heard the term. The past five or so years have seen a surge in the number of ESAs showing up places like airports and college dorms, as well as more variety in the types of animals bearing the ESA label. The ESA menagerie, once dominated by dogs, has expanded to include peacocks, alligators, pigs and other less traditional kinds of pets.
Despite the uproar over which animals can be ESAs, the guidelines are actually pretty simple. Service animals are professional workers who are “individually trained to perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability,” per the American Disabilities Act. “Companion animal” is just another term for a regular old pet. Emotional support animals are a little of both.
A pet doesn’t need any training to become an ESA, but an owner needs a prescription for an ESA in the form of a note from a therapist (or psychiatrist, or other type of licensed mental health provider) attesting to their emotional need for a support animal. Unlike service animals, ESAs don’t have carte blanche to tag along wherever their humans go. But they are allowed to do things that regular pets can’t, such as sit in the main cabin of an airplane for free and live in no-pet apartment buildings (also for free). The legal basis for these allowances stems from two federal statutes, the Fair Housing Amendments Act and the Americans With Disabilities Act, which protect people with disabilities against certain forms of discrimination.
“An emotional support animal lends emotional support to a human being. A true service animal is almost a living, breathing, feeling piece of medical equipment.”
So while service animals certainly offer emotional support, that’s not the “service” they’re trained for. And, while the emotional comfort that ESAs may offer is undoubtedly beneficial to their owners, it’s not a legally recognized service.
“An emotional support animal lends emotional support to a human being,” says Steve Dale, a certified animal behavioral consultant. “A true service animal is almost a living, breathing, feeling piece of medical equipment.”
So far, these differences are pretty straightforward. But in practice, efforts to apply the right rules to the right animals can go awry. A restaurant manager might not know that service animals are always allowed in restaurants, but that ESAs don’t have any legally protected right to be there. (Try telling that to Ivana Trump.) And, even if they do know the rules, they might not be sure how to enforce them. Owners aren’t required by law to show proof of service animals; verbal confirmation is enough. But ESA owners do need to provide letters as proof upon request. Neither service animals nor ESAs need to wear anything, like vests or collars, to signify their status, although some owners opt for vests anyway. And while only dogs and miniature horses can work as service animals, any domesticated animal can be an ESA. If either a service animal or an ESA shows aggression or has an accident, their privileges can be restricted.
It’s easy to game the ESA system. Any pet owner can go online and get an ESA prescription letter — dozens of websites issue them. Some of these sites, such as ESA Doctors, are credible. They use telemedicine platforms to connect letter-seeking users with mental health professionals who evaluate their emotional needs. Others are “ESA mills,” where a survey and $100 (or less) will get you a letter within a week, although there’s no guarantee it will pass muster. And then plenty of sites fall somewhere in the middle; they typically pay licensed therapists to issue letters to people they’ve never communicated with.
I spent almost an hour live-chatting with Garreth, a service rep from an ESA site that boasts Better Business Bureau accreditation and requires every user to speak with a licensed mental health provider over the phone in order to obtain a letter. While the site seemed credible at first glance, with its dot-org URL and award-style badges on full display, my conversation with Garreth made me think otherwise. In addition to issuing letters, the site offers ESA registration, which isn’t required for certification. Garreth described the site’s ESA “lifetime registration package” as optional “supporting documentation,” conceding that it wouldn’t hold up in court. So what’s the point of doing it?
“In my experience,” Garreth told me, “it has not only helped to stave off especially stubborn landlords, but, as emotional support animals are not normally allowed in public places unless management of a store, hotel, etc. says otherwise, it can also help in swaying the decision to allow your support animal public entry in your favor.”
There’s also a virtual flea market with unequivocally bogus ESA signifiers, including official-looking vests, collars and other dupes. These bargain basement options are the Zoological equivalent of fake IDs, according to Dale. While they’re cheaper than a letter — just $15 for a costumey collar — they won’t get an owner or a pet as far. A well-behaved Goldendoodle in a fake ESA vest might find their way into a bistro, but airlines and landlords of pet-free buildings are more likely to push back and ask for letters.
“I can say with confidence that there are people deliberately misrepresenting the status of their animals,” adds Rebecca Huss, general legal counsel at the Best Friends Animal Society. “But many times we find that people with legitimate service animal needs are just trying to have a physical manifestation of that. They get vests for their dogs just to avoid problems out in public, or to keep people from interacting with a working service animal.”
Cassie Boness, a doctoral candidate at the University of Missouri, works with a group that’s published several groundbreaking papers on the human-animal bond. The ease with which one can certify an assistance animal, she says, is detrimental to people who really need them.
“I’m on a college campus, so I see and hear a lot of ‘I don’t want to pay a pet fee in my apartment.’ Or ‘I want my animals in the dorm with me,’” she says. “People have figured out how to get these things waived, and they don’t totally understand the repercussions. In my opinion, if someone really needs an ESA, why not go through the proper channels to obtain a genuine psychiatric service animal?”
(Unlike an ESA, a psychiatric service animal is trained to perform a specific service for a specific person, whether that’s reminding them to take medication or sensing the presence of an oncoming psychiatric episode.)
Boness says that tightening licensure and certification is the next step toward helping those who truly need service animals and ESAs, as well as the animals themselves.
“Determining someone’s need for a service or emotional support animal must be objective,” she says. “Those evaluations are better served for forensic psychologists, rather than therapists who could potentially be biased toward their clients. The accuracy of a report like that makes sure that the people who really need service and emotional support animals are getting them.”
I moved from the east coast back to my home state of Ohio in 2014, after the major depressive disorder and anxiety I’d been diagnosed with 10 years earlier came back with a vengeance. My depressive period continued at home, where I withdrew from the outside world and retreated to my bed for days at a time.
Then, one night, I met Rufus.
He was snatching cat food from a dish my parents left out for the neighborhood strays. I watched him work, his dextrous little paws rifling through the kibble. For some reason, I found him mesmerizing. I also found myself awake past 8 p.m. for the first time in months.
I went outside the next night and took a seat across the yard from the dish of treats. Sure enough, Rufus crept out of the bushes and helped himself. As he lifted his snout to sniff the air, we made eye contact.
Observing Rufus became a ritual. Each night, I’d bring a handful of goodies and sit a little closer to the food dish, hoping he’d choose me over the cat food. After about three weeks, it happened: Bypassing his usual target, Rufus headed my way and proceeded to eat marshmallows and broken-up cookies out of my cupped hand. I stayed as still as I could to avoid startling him. But inside, after months of feeling little besides numbness, I was suddenly full of emotion.
Where do Rufus and my other raccoons belong on the animal classification matrix? Actually, let’s put quotes around “my,” because these raccoons fall into a category of animals we haven’t discussed — wild animals. And maybe that’s why my interactions with them are so touching and helpful to me. Every time one of my raccoons stretches out a little black paw to grab a mini marshmallow, I’m reminded that, unlike service animals, ESAs or companion animals, the raccoons don’t need to be there. They choose to be there.
My own therapist, Jeff, has been a part of my transformation from hopeless depressive to wildlife whisperer since the beginning. “I vividly remember you coming into my office the session after you’d met the first raccoon,” he says. “You bonded with this unique animal, at a time when you were feeling very isolated. These animals gave you communion. They gave you a place to belong.”
It’s true. Getting to know these raccoons gave me something that, even as a well-loved, cared-for human being, my depression completely blocked out: connection.
“Our ability to connect and empathize with animals helps [us do this with] humans. That’s especially helpful in therapy,” Jeff adds. “Animals can help you tap into certain emotions that may have otherwise been inaccessible.”
Dale agrees that, while the human-animal connection is well-documented in neuroscience research, no one truly understands why it’s so special.
“We know that when we interact with an animal, the neurotransmitters governing happiness and feeling good are boosted,” he says. “Why? I read a story about a beekeeper who became incredibly distraught after his hives were vandalized. Now, he didn’t know those bees as individuals. They didn’t have names. But the bond was there. The same is true with farmers and food production animals. You don’t need to share your bed to develop a bond.”
Sharing nighttime snacks on a back porch in Ohio has worked for me.
So, could I get an ESA certificate for my raccoon confidants? There actually is legal precedent — at least in the U.K. — for emotional support raccoons. I’m not sure how a bartender or a CVS clerk would react if I walked through their front door with a trash panda in tow.
But the emotional support I get from my raccoons doesn’t hinge on them living or traveling with me, or even being a major physical presence in my life. What more would I get from toting them around in service costumes (aside from likes and follows)?
“I think what we’re really talking about here is nurturing,” explains Nancy Gee, a psychiatry professor and director of The Center for Human-Animal Interaction at Virginia Commonwealth University. “Humans have a need to be nurtured, but also a need to nurture. When we take care of animals, we give them everything they need. And, in return, they give us attention and affection.”
Speaking of which, Tank just waddled up. He thinks he’s just here for dinner. Really, he’s here to help me get through another day.