When Pigs Fly Emotional Support Animals, Service Dogs and the Politics of Legitimacy across Species Boundaries

by Justyna Wlodarczyk

About a year ago, I attended a lecture by a prominent expert in therapy dogs who used the term “emotional support animal” in his talk, accompanied by an image of a pig on a plane in the PowerPoint presentation. The mere mention of the term was enough to get the audience – a room full of animal therapy professionals – to burst out laughing. The emotional support animal – or ESA, for short – has become the punchline of jokes; an epitome of political correctness run wild.

The bigger project that I was working on when I got interested in the issue of fake service dogs and emotional support animals was the theme of power relationships within animal training regimes. In the literature on animal assisted therapy, I kept encountering a tension between the belief in the innate healing potential of animal touch, as an extension of contact with nature, and the belief in the transformative power of the process of training, which turns animals – mostly dogs, of course – into specialized medical equipment. How is it that, on the one hand, we increasingly believe in the power of contact with animals, but, on the other, we laugh when the term emotional support animal is mentioned?

The criticism meted out at the ESA centers on the figure of the pig on a plane, which serves as an embodiment of Americans’ runaway attachment to pets. After I analyzed hundreds of media stories about ESAs, I realized that there have actually been very few pig-related incidents, and the ones that did take place have turned into something resembling urban legends: stories that keep recirculating in slightly changed format even years after the original incident took place. What has increased with the media attention on ESAs is not the number of flying pigs, but the level of suspicion towards persons with invisible disabilities accompanied by service animals. This article analyzes how the media have made it seem as if there exists a binary dichotomy between illegitimate ESAs/legitimate service dogs, while in reality the picture is much more complex. I believe that it is important for both the animal studies community and the disability studies community to think through these notions and consider the politics of legitimization at work in these media representations.

Listen to the audio for the transcript above, here:

Read the full article on the Medical Humanities Journal website.

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