HB43: Bill would regulate emotional support animals

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Katelyn Stiles
This emotional support animal, Biscuit, helps his owner with anxiety induced by a traumatic brain injury. (Katelyn Stiles)

BYU-Idaho online student and Provo resident Scotty Greenhalgh started to experience immense anxiety after he suffered a traumatic brain injury last year. After visiting doctors and specialists, he sought out a counselor to help with his psychological struggles.

He said he didn’t feel like the therapy was helping his anxiety and the monthly payments made him even more anxious.

“These experiences almost created a cyclone for me, where I didn’t feel like I could get out,” Greenhalgh said. “But I’ve always felt comforted by animals, so I felt like that would be a more natural solution for me.”

Scotty and his wife McKenzie, a BYU student, searched for the perfect companion and found Biscuit, now Scotty’s emotional support dog.

“He’s an angel,” Greenhalgh said. “He’s just a light of happiness. He’s a lot of work, but working with a dog is more helpful to me than talking with someone about my problems.”

Like other BYU students and Utahns, a support animal comforts Greenhalgh through his everyday life. But purchasing Biscuit wasn’t the end to his problems. The Greenhalgh’s residence wasn’t pet-friendly, and though residences are legally obligated to allow service and support animals, they had a hard time getting their landlord on board.

“Our landlord was very uneducated with the whole process,” McKenzie Greenhalgh said. “She attempted to raise our non-refundable deposit and we felt discriminated against. We also had an increase in our monthly rent, which she attributed to us being second-year tenants, but it still seemed fishy to us. We are good tenants and didn’t feel the raise was justified, but decided not to push it.”

According to Rep. Jim Dunnigan, R-Taylorsville, people in need of service animals across the state are experiencing similar problems. Because of this, he is sponsoring HB43, which would make it a misdemeanor to lie about whether your pet is an emotional support animal.

Dunnigan said those who lie about their pets being emotional support animals make it more difficult for those who have a legitimate need for an emotional support animal.

“I have heard from a number of people who work with service animals who are in support of this because they have their highly-trained service animals or emotional support animals and want to get housing, and it’s becoming more difficult because the landlords are seeing more people saying they need an animal for emotional support when they really haven’t qualified,” Dunnigan said.

The bill wouldn’t change who can qualify for an emotional support animal or the process of getting one, which Dunnigan said many people are concerned about. He said the amendment is minor, and the penalty would be the same for lying about having an emotional support animal as it already is for service animals.

Service animals help people with physical disabilities by performing tasks for them and helping them physically, like seeing eye dogs, while emotional support animals offer companionship and support people psychologically.

“Typically, you go to a doctor and tell them you want an emotional support animal, then the doctor can give you a note saying they authorize you to have an emotional support animal if you qualify,” Dunnigan said. “And you can take that to your landlord.”

HB43 has cleared the House and is waiting for debate in the Utah Senate. On Tuesday, Feb. 5, House committee members said those who are hurt most frequently by fraudulent emotional support animals are those who have a legitimate need for them.

Dunnigan said around 50 percent of support animals in Utah are fraudulent. He also said HB43 would mainly act as a deterrent for those without approved needs.

BYU graduate Olivia Snow got an emotional support dog her freshman year at BYU. She said support animals can make a huge difference for college students, but most college apartments prohibit pets. She supports HB43 because she said it would help those who actually need support animals.

“A bill making it illegal to lie about having an emotional support animal makes sense,” Snow said. “First off, it’s dishonest. Second, it demeans those who really do need emotional support animals. If everyone is lying about having one, then there will be an air of suspicion every time a landlord is approached about it. Lying about this belittles the serious condition that so many of us face with depression or anxiety.”

Vineyard resident Jessica Leite said her emotional support dog Bear has offered comfort and soothed her anxious feelings.

“It’s especially important in today’s society because we are discovering more mental health issues,” she said. “This legislation would make sense to me because a lot of people abuse the system to have animals in places that don’t allow them.”

Sarah Rost, another BYU graduate with an emotional support animal, agreed with Snow and Leite, but said she doesn’t think she would make it a misdemeanor.

“I think it’s wrong for people to lie about their anxiety, but I know a lot of people benefit from animal support, even if they don’t have anxiety,” Rost said.

There are no regulations on which animals can serve as emotional support animals, unlike service animals, which can only be dogs and miniature ponies.

Dunnigan said he hopes HB43 will make it easier for those who need them to secure housing with their support animals.

To access the bill’s full text, or to follow the bill throughout the 2019 legislative session, visit le.utah.gov.

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