Friday, October 17, 2014

in support of emotional support animals

Have u seen the inflammatory New Yorker piece by Patricia Marx in which she mocks emotional support animals? my friend texted earlier this week. It is poorly argued!

My friend, whom I’ll call Aileen in case her landlord is reading this, has an emotional support dog. (Not a turtle, snake, turkey, alpaca or any of the other species Patricia Marx tries to pass off as pseudo-service animals in her piece.) Aileen has a real letter, from her  actual psychiatrist, that allows Houdini to live with her in a building that doesn’t allow pets. Aileen has an actual anxiety disorder, and it’s no lie that dogs have brought her a lot of comfort throughout her life.

Alpaca side-eye.
That said, it’s not like Aileen would have a panic attack in CVS if she didn’t bring Houdini with her, so his ESA status is in the gray zone. Aileen is a people pleaser and would really rather not bring Houdini to places he might not be welcome. Last week we left a restaurant before ordering when Houdini’s curly gray legs kept edging past the technical border of the patio and an inch into the open-walled sort-of-indoors part of the restaurant. (I’m sure it’s a border deeply respected by insects and all other potential health code violators.)

Ironically, the anxiety disorder that’s causing Aileen the most distress right now is Houdini’s. Unlike the animals Marx writes about, Houdini is small, quiet and well behaved. (And very, very cute, although so is Marx’s alpaca.) Unless he’s left alone, in which case he freaks out and barks a lot. So Aileen has essentially become his Emotional Support Human—as it more or less should be in reciprocal relationships. Like Aileen, Houdini had a difficult childhood and sometimes shit comes up (not literally—Houdini is more anal retentive than anal explosive). Either she will need to get bolder about owning his ESA status, or Houdini will need to learn to stay alone for short periods of time, because just never getting groceries is not really a sustainable solution. But they’re working on it.

This airplane passenger found Houdini quite comforting.
As I type, Ferdinand is resting his cheek on my wrist for emotional and physical support. He is purring in a way that reassures me.

I admit that I had a glimmer of a fantasy of you taking on the article in one of your blog posts! Aileen texted. Mostly, I want to see what you think.

I can’t resist a commission(!), so here is what I think.

1. The article is essentially stunt writing, in the vein of those “beauty dare” pieces in which a woman wears a blonde wig or a fake mustache around New York and documents people’s reaction. Such writing makes vague, and vaguely troubling, allusions to the scientific method, and there’s a longer piece in me somewhere about the fake science-ification of our culture. Don’t get me started on those “I Fucking Love Science!” pictures that get reposted all over Facebook. Half the time it’s just a picture of a weird fish. That’s not science—science is a process. A weird fish, however awesome it is, is nature. The New Yorker is usually above this kind of writing.

This reminds me, I need to make a dentist appointment.


2. Marx makes a couple of valid points: It’s too easy to get pets ESA credentials—it takes about the same amount of effort as becoming a licensed pastor who can marry people by the power vested in them by the First Church of the Internet, or whatever it’s called. Also, untrained ESA pets threaten the status and sometimes the presence of real service animals. Fair enough: Cheating sucks, and no one wants to witness a seeing-eye dog mauled by Ivana Trump’s purse dog.

3. Marx is inventing a problem where one barely exists. Using hyperbole to make a point is a respectable literary tradition, but the truth is that most people feel okay about the presence of animals. Service personnel sometimes get nervous about getting in trouble, but Marx’s fellow passengers and shoppers are mostly amused by and curious about her turkey, pig, etc. As I would be!

Once in Mexico I saw a tiger in the back of a truck at a gas station, and it was amazing! Although I worried a little bit for the tiger.

Sad tiger is sad. Or maybe washing his face.
Cats (the small ones) and dogs have lived alongside humans for thousands of years. They are domesticated animals. If they can watch TV with us at home, they can probably sit at our feet on a restaurant patio. No one but Patricia Marx is trying to bring a turkey anywhere.

Much of the humor in Marx’s piece stems from people trying to be accommodating. But making fun of people’s kindness toward humans and animals seems kind of cheap. That’s what they get for being nice to her?

4. Marx devotes one paragraph to Peter Singer, author of Animal Liberation, who makes the point that going everywhere with humans may not be good for animals (see tiger, above). “Animals can get as depressed as people do,” he says. I too am for letting animals be animals. Let’s not dress them up and make them do tricks, unless they’ve been bred to do tricks like herd sheep, in which case let’s get them some sheep to herd so they don’t become neurotic and depressed about their uselessness, the way humans do.

But one thing domestic animals like to do is hang out with humans. So why not?

Reading the piece, I felt a little bit like the person in the room not laughing at the rape joke, before the tide shifted and it became not-okay to make rape jokes. As far as socially acceptable scrutiny and mockery go, the animal rights movement is in the territory of the size-acceptance movement. “As far as animals go, I like them,” Marx writes. “Medium rare.” Bah-dum-bum!

G-Dog?
G-Dog and the Homeboys includes the oral history of a homie who describes a childhood pockmarked with just about every kind of abuse and neglect you can imagine. At one point, he’s sent to live with relatives he barely knows in rural Texas. There, he meets a dog who quickly becomes his best friend. They go everywhere together. This is a kid who’s seen nothing but the worst of humanity, and done some pretty awful shit himself, but with a dog, he discovers all the things he thought were off limits to him: love, peace, kindness, fun.

I work with a woman whose cats performed a similar therapeutic function in her life. Although some people from violent upbringings are cruel to animals, just as often—more often, probably—they gravitate toward them. Every time a puppy or kitten is found in a Chinatown alleyway, it’s snatched up and smothered with love by a team of homies. You don’t have to be skilled in the art of metaphor to see that they know what it’s like to be small and helpless and abandoned. Ollie, our youngest cat, came into my life when I was feeling hopeless, as if no good new thing would ever happen to me. With his relentless sweetness and adaptability, he’s a constant reminder that positive change is possible, and that it can take time. (Sorry, this is starting to sound like a grant application. Hazard of the trade.)

Ollie's like, "Don't make me into your symbol of hope. Feed me."
Kendra and I often joke about starting a Homeboy animal therapy program; it’s a joke because Father Greg—lover of all humanity—is kind of meh on animals.

In my opinion, Fr. Greg has the rare ability to see people the way most people see animals: He sees us as beautiful, innocent and capable of learning new tricks. AK and I once theorized that God thinks people are totally cute. The non-saints among us need a little help making the leap. So let us have our dogs and cats. Let us honor them and hang out with them in the ways that they and we deserve. Throw us a bone, okay?

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Most were accommodating because they didn't want to be sued, an interesting commentary on our culture alone, and a characteristic that is increasingly affecting policy decisions (or lack thereof) on a gamut of issues facing us in America.

I'm not sure she's arguing anything, rather she's holding up a mirror and asking, what do you think? Like a good Dylan song, sometimes it's hard to hear the truth.

Yep, she's got chutzpah. It made me uncomfortable too, but I also enjoyed the writing and the humor.

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