This week, Delta Airlines announced it will discontinue its ban on emotional support animals on flights longer than eight hours. However, in a retrogressive move, the airline said it will continue to prohibit pit-bull-type dogs on its airplanes.
Delta’s decision fails to acknowledge what scientists and animal experts have now agreed upon for years – that there is no evidence supporting the assertion that a dog poses a direct threat because of his or her breed. Even the federal Department of Transportation recently issued guidance to airlines asking them to not prohibit service dogs based on their breed or physical appearance – guidance Delta appears to have completely ignored.
With advances in science and our increased understanding about a dog’s DNA and its relationship to appearance and behavior, we now know that determination of a dog’s breed is a complex issue that does not neatly translate into predictive behavior patterns. Dogs of all shapes, sizes and breeds serve as support animals. Delta is discriminating not just against the animals but also against individuals with disabilities who rely on these animals to help them perform routine daily tasks, including getting from place to place.
Airlines have discretion in how pets fly, but they should make reasonable accommodations for service and emotional support animals regardless of breed, and they also have the responsibility to make appropriate accommodations for owners with larger size animals. Most relevant for the current debate, however, is that animals should be treated as individuals, and that if airline personnel determine that an animal—service animal or otherwise— is displaying unsafe behavior or is too stressed to fly, they have the ability to recommend that such an animal not accompany their owner on the flight.
The airline is also bucking a nationwide trend where entire states, counties and localities have moved decisively in recent years to prohibit or overturn laws that discriminate against dogs who look a certain way. Right now, our staff members in Maryland are preparing to help overturn a decades-old breed-specific policy in Prince George’s County. The county is the second most populated locality in the United States, after the Miami-Dade County in Florida, that now discriminates against certain dogs based on their appearance.
If Prince George’s does repeal its ban – and we will be pushing for this with all of our might — it will join more than two dozen localities that have thrown out breed-specific legislation in just the last 18 months, including Kansas City, Kansas. Earlier this year, Washington became the 22nd state in the nation to prohibit its towns from passing breed-specific legislation.
What county lawmakers should have realized by now is that breed-specific bans are cost-prohibitive, difficult to enforce, and do nothing more than create a scary situation for some residents, while driving away others. Gerrard Sheppard, an NFL football player who was formerly with the Baltimore Ravens, says he worries that each time he even drives through Prince George’s County with his dogs Ace and Zoe, they could be taken away from him simply because of how they look. He says he cannot imagine anything happening to them – “I pour my heart into these dogs.”
Sheppard will be at a rally we are organizing in the county on October 1 to make the case for the repeal, along with our coalition partners Best Friends Animal Society, Humane Rescue Alliance, Prince George’s SPCA, and Show Your Soft Side, a public service campaign that works with young people to end animal abuse.
Joining us will also be Matthew White, a Purple Heart recipient who was wounded in Afghanistan when an IED explosion blew off his leg below the knee. White adopted Nike, his pit-bull-type dog, from the Washington Humane Society (now Humane Rescue Alliance). The two are inseparable, with the dog helping the man manage his post-traumatic stress disorder. Matthew was offered free housing in Prince George’s County through a private program that provides housing to wounded veterans, but he refused it because of his commitment to Nike. He now lives in Virginia and, alongside Sheppard, advocates to end breed discrimination as a spokesman for Show Your Soft Side.
There is no evidence that breed-specific legislation keeps communities — or airlines — safer. But what it does do is cause tremendous hardships to animals and their owners. We urge Delta CEO Ed Bastian to reconsider the airline’s decision, and our offer to implement more effective approaches to ensuring passengers and pets stay safe on planes still stands. We will also be pushing to overturn the ban in Prince George’s County. If you live in the county, please contact your council member and ask him or her to support the repeal. And if you live in a community with breed-specific legislation, download our advocacy toolkit to learn how to repeal such legislation.