I didn’t set out to be Brooklyn’s canine curmudgeon. Honest. I have nothing against dogs. I’ve never lived with one or wished to, but I get why people love man’s best friend. I bear no psychological trauma or scars from the species: I’ve never been bitten by a boxer or chased by a chihuahua. I even watched Lassie as a kid.
Yet, thanks to indignant posts of surreptitiously snapped images, I have earned a dubious reputation in my social network as the get-off-my-lawn guy when it comes to the increasing numbers of four-legged subway riders. (You guys smiling and cooing at that puppy on the F train? You’re not helping.) Friends even send me pictures and reports of sightings, like cats proudly delivering dead mice to their masters. I don’t like being that guy, but the situation has really gotten out of hand. In the Year of the Horse – now there’s a bullet dodged so far — the subway has gone to the dogs. Even Gothamist took note, deeming a woman whose pet occupied one seat and its empty carrier another “The Most Inconsiderate Human in the NYC Subway System.”
MTA rules require animals to be enclosed in containers and, in my experience, until recently they were. But dogs in carriers have lately been joined by dogs on leashes, dogs peeking out of pocketbooks, dogs in arms. With a lack of enforcement and the encouragement of seeing others get away with it, some riders are making mass transit far too pet friendly.
Why does it bug me? For the same reason people blocking subway doors, pushing double-wide strollers in rush hour and leaning on poles bug me. Because it’s rude and reeks of entitlement and selfishness: a Fountainhead view of individual rights in a dense urban environment. Bringing dogs on the subway is inconsiderate of those with allergies and anxieties; while I have yet to see one attack or leave behind a present, neither would come as a surprise.
Service dogs are a different story — actually, two stories. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) guarantees equal treatment and privacy to those who employ service dogs, whatever the nature of their physical or psychological infirmity. I know someone whose therapist agrees he can’t fly without his miniature schnauzer, and so she travels with him unquestioned and undisturbed. But hiding behind that same protection, companies now sell credentials of no legal standing to anyone who wishes to deem their pet an “emotional support animal.”
In the frozen food section of my local supermarket this summer, I came upon a man with a small dog on a leash. Now while subway riding strikes me as rude, animals in food stores are a recognized health hazard. When I informed him of that fact, he snarled at me. (The man, that is.) “I have a permit. Check with the manager.” After looking at whatever document the man produced, the manager assured me, “He’s allowed. He’s got a card.”
Wrong answer. While it’s conceivable the surly shopper had a “diagnosed mental or emotional disorder” and therapist ratification for an ESA, ADA only recognizes dogs “individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities.” According to federal law, dogs whose sole function is to provide comfort or emotional support do not qualify as service animals under the ADA.
Or he could have paid $99.99 for an “Emotional Support Animal ID Kit” from a company like Free My Paws, one of many that sell misleading documents and accessories to help owners hide behind strict ADA limits on the questions that can be asked of a person about their disabilities and their service animal.
An August profile of Mad Men actress Christina Hendricks in England’s Guardian included this exchange about Zouzou, a cockapoo who flies with her.
“She’s an anti-anxiety dog.” Hendricks says this totally straight-faced but is that a twinkle in her eye? “She calms me down,” she says.
And the air authorities are O.K. with that?
“You know, they’re not legally allowed to ask the reasons.”
This may well be on the up and up. But celebrities are notorious for wanting rules bent to their benefit, and surely some are not above deceit when it comes to pet transport.
In a wonderful New Yorker article last month, Patricia Marx tested the limits of credulity and access. Using a bogus E-mail purchased from an online therapist, she was able to take a turtle to a museum, an alpaca onto Amtrak (in defiance of railroad policy) and a turkey for a meal at Katz’s Delicatessen, all under the pretense of needing them for emotional support. She even managed, overcoming mild resistance from a ticket agent, to make a pig fly on JetBlue. She didn’t bother to bring a dog on the subway – it’s unlikely anyone would have noticed or questioned her. Although I’ve heard about a conductor haranguing a dog walker over the train PA, I have yet to see a token booth clerk bother anyone with a dog going through a turnstile.
It’s easy to break rules when you don’t even know what they are, so it would help to remind riders and MTA staff alike who can ride the rails. The subway system already overstates the obvious in the quality of life announcements that fill the quiet moments of a commuter’s ride. Telling people not to bring unenclosed animals on the train would help.
Lifelong New Yorker Ira Robbins is the founder of Trouser Press, a super influential and awesome New York-based rock music magazine published from 1974 to 1984. The editors of the magazine have authored several record guides, the content of which is mostly available at trouserpress.com.