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'Emotional support squirrels' on planes not protected by law, attorney says

Posted at 6:03 PM, Oct 10, 2018
and last updated 2018-10-10 18:27:23-04

A Lake County woman held up a Frontier Airlines flight from Orlando to Cleveland on Tuesday evening after repeatedly refusing to get off the plane with her ‘emotional support’ squirrel, which was concealed in a pet carrying case.

Frontier’s policy, which is backed by the federal Air Carrier Access Act, prohibits passengers from bringing squirrels and other rodents, in addition to other animals like snakes and birds of prey, even if such animal is considered an emotional support animal.

Cindy Torok was repeatedly asked to leave the plane by flight staff and airport security but defiantly stayed in her seat until police escorted her off of the plane, passengers and Frontier Airlines officials said.

A spokesperson for the airliner said Torok filled out the proper and necessary paperwork to declare that she would be bringing an emotional support animal onboard. However, the spokesperson said Torok did not specify what the emotional support animal was. 

Passengers said Torok was defiant and refused to cooperate with flight staff.

“She would not get off the plane. She refused to get off the plane. They made all of us get off,” one passenger said. “All the handicapped and all the children. It was really annoying and it delayed us two hours. That’s why we’re here at midnight.”

Eventually, Torok was escorted off of the plane by local police. As she was wheeled off the tarmac, Torok flipped off and screamed an obscenity at a passenger that appeared to have said Torok was crazy, according to cell phone video obtained by News 5.

“She understood what [flight staff] said but she wasn’t hearing it. For her it was an emotional support pet,” one passenger said. “She felt like she had the right for her and her pet to stay on the plane. The first thing I said was this can’t be real.”

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, a wide variety of service animals and emotional support animals are permitted to fly with their owners assuming other requirements and parameters are met. For example, the animal’s owner must have an emotional or mental disability that is recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistic Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). The owner must also have documentation from a medical provider that verifies the animal is used for psychiatric support. Airlines may more specifically regulate the size of the animal and where it may or may not be during the duration of the flight.

Every major airline outlaws squirrels and other rodents from boarding a plane even if it is an emotional support animal. Emily Gilbert, a Cleveland-area attorney who has practiced disability law for more than a decade, said the federal Air Carrier Access Act gives airliners some leeway to craft their own policies.

“It doesn’t surprise me that where the airlines are given the leeway to set their parameters that they would draw the line there,” Gilbert said. “I take nothing away from individuals that require those animals to be emotional support animals… but I think the more unusual the animal is, the bigger the problem its going to present. The airlines have a lot of leeway to draw lines where they see fit when it comes to those emotional support animals.”

Many of the policies are crafted in the interest of public safety and health, Gilbert said.

“The airlines have to balance the needs of the individual with the disability against the safety and protection of the aircraft itself,” Gilbert said. “There are certain carve-outs in the law itself against reptiles, rodents, and spiders because there is a health concern. As we move away from cats and dogs, which are the most common kinds of emotional support animals, I think the likelihood of having a problem getting that animal onboard is going to increase.”

The rules are entirely different for certified service animals, which are commonly used to help perform a task, Gilbert said. Many service animals help guide individuals with visual impairments, for example. 

“There are protections out there depending on the context for a person with an emotional support animal but the further you get away from a dog or a cat or a small horse, the more problem you are going to have enforcing your rights under the law,” Gilbert said. “That’s not to say you don’t have rights or you can’t enforce them but there are limits and you should know them. I think that the responsibility of having a service animal or emotional support animal — to some extent — has to fall on the person that has that animal. Now, that doesn’t alleviate the obligation of others to follow the law. They have to follow the law too.”

TSA released a statement about their policy regarding support animals:

Airlines determine whether or not animals are allowed on board their aircraft. TSA’s responsibility is to be sure the animal and its carrying case do not pose a threat to aviation security and we did that.

The TSA will screen animals brought to a checkpoint if it does not pose a danger to our officers.
The squirrel was screened the same way someone’s cat would be screened.  The container was sent through the x-ray machine while the passenger carried the squirrel through the walk-through metal detector.  In this way we could be sure that there were no explosives or other prohibited items hidden inside the container.  Once the TSA determines that an animal and its carrying case do not pose a threat to the aviation system, then it is up to the airline to determine if the animal may fly or not.

Background info for any follow-up questions:
It is not the TSA’s responsibility to determine if the animal is permitted on a particular airline. It is the passenger’s responsibility to research that before coming to the airport.  TSA’s responsibility is to be sure the animal and its carrying case do not pose a threat to aviation security and we did that.

Torok, who lives in Lake County, refused to answer any questions about the incident other than to confirm she was asked to leave the plane by flight staff and security. She apparently received a voucher from Frontier Airlines and returned home on a different flight Wednesday morning.