Do ‘Emotional Support Animals’ Pose Safety Risk To Airline Passengers?

LOS ANGELES (CBSLA.com) — Passengers flying with their pets on their laps, in a seat or uncaged on the floor, pets of all kinds, from a monkey, a turkey, even a duck.

And if you think pigs can’t fly, they can when they’re certified to be what’s called an “emotional support animal.”

A Los Angeles chiropractor gave CBS2’s David Goldstein a letter allowing our undercover producer to fly with her dog Cody on her lap for free — after paying hundreds of dollars in cash.

Because an ESA can be your personal pet and doesn’t have to be trained at all, a flight attendants union says the animals have caused safety problems for passengers.

Goldstein spoke via Skype with Eric Goldmann of Atlanta, who tweeted images of ESAs whimpering, barking and growling on a flight.

“Animals who have gotten loose in the cabin … flight attendants trying to chase them around the cabin to get a hold of them, ” said Goldmann. “This can create a lot of problems that can lead to people getting hurt on board.”

But the government allows it if passengers have documentation from “any licensed mental health professional,” including a medical doctor, who is specifically treating a passenger’s mental or emotional disability.

David Geffen, who sat on the Santa Monica Disability Commission, says in order to have a pet certified as an ESA by a doctor, it should have a very specific medical purpose.

“It’s an animal that lends emotional support to a person with some type of mental disability,” said Geffen. “Mental disability, I’m using in a very broad sense, could be anxiety, it could be depression.”

But a cottage industry has sprung up offering ESA letters, and some local doctors are cashing in.

Leon Weathersby, a licensed chiropractor, greeted Goldstein’s undercover producer at a clinic near MacArthur Park after she answered an ad placed on Craigslist.

Weathersby: “So I do the ESA letters for patients that are having stress, anxiety, panic attacks, headaches, neck pain, severe back pain, that kind of thing. Does that fall into those categories?”

Producer: “Well, I want to take my dog on the plane. Um, when you do that, can you take your dog? I want to take my dog for free on the plane.”

Weathersby: “I need to confirm that you have one of those disorders …”

Producer: “OK.”

Weathersby: “… and then I can write the letter for you.”

Producer: “OK, and what are the qualifiers?”

Weathersby: “If you’re having stress, depression, anxiety, headaches, neck pain, back pain.”

Producer: “Um, well, I, I had a motorcycle accident and that’s kind of stressful.”

She did have a recent accident, and on the basis of that and without ever seeing or asking about how her dog could actually help, Weathersby signed off and collected a $250 fee.

“I’m recommending an ESA letter for you that you have your pet when you travel for comfort,” he said.

After counting out the money, Weathersby produced a letter that allowed Goldstein’s producer to fly with her dog.

When Goldstein confronted Weathersby, he had nothing to say.

It’s not the first time Weathersby has come under the microscope, In 2006, the California Board of Chiropractic Examiners revoked his license after the doctor was convicted of grand theft of personal property by filing fraudulent insurance claims.

His license was reinstated in 2010.

But as far as issuing ESA letters, the board told Goldstein “that” shouldn’t be done by one of their doctors, adding that treatment for a mental health condition is beyond the scope of a chiropractor’s practice.

A statement released to Goldstein from Weathersby’s lawyer read: “Dr. Weathersby appreciates your interest but declines your invitation to attend an interview. Dr. Weathersby is a conscientious and dedicated chiropractor who practices chiropractic within the scope defined in Title 16 of the California Code of Regulations and the Chiropractic Initiative Act. His decisions with respect to patient care are always based upon the best interests of the patient.”

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