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The nonsense world of emotional support animals

21 May 2022

9:00 AM

21 May 2022

9:00 AM

Sometimes an event or a phenomenon is so perplexing and so terrible that it’s best not to deal with it too directly and for too long. Best to look at something tangentially related, which is why I’ve spent so much time recently worrying about Kirrin Medcalf’s dog.

Kirrin is head of ‘trans inclusion’ at Stonewall, the charity which once fought for the rights of gay men and women but now devotes itself to trying to overturn the heteronormative patriarchy, using the notion of transsexual kids as a Trojan horse. Don’t worry. You don’t need to understand that. It’s best not to, if you want to stay sane.

All you need to know is that for Kirrin and for Stonewall, it’s violent heresy to say that men and women are biologically different. For them, your biological sex is what you say it is, simple as that, and even to think otherwise is to do great harm.

Kirrin appeared in court last week because Stonewall is currently being sued by a lawyer called Allison Bailey, who claims that they bullied her and cost her her livelihood as a result of her insistence that men and women have different bodies, which of course they do. Bailey has been harassed by the usual activists in the usual way – death and rape threats – but nonetheless it was Kirrin who appeared to feel most victimised. Although he appeared in court only online, via Zoom, he insisted on being accompanied by his mum and his support dog. Just the sight of Bailey was too traumatising for him without the dog.


I can’t bear to think about what Stonewall’s weird ideology does to children: the unthinking glibness with which they tell kids they can choose their sex, then push them towards mutilating their bodies and taking drugs which will make them infertile. I can’t bear it for the adult activists either – all the restless, unhappy allies who will one day face the enormity of what they’ve done.

So instead, as we move into another week of Allison Bailey vs Stonewall, I’m going to focus on the animals – not just Kirrin’s dog, but all the thousands of emotional support animals, or ESAs, this anxious young generation requires.

ESAs are a big business now both here and in the States, which I suppose makes sense. If you’ve been persuaded that you’re not the fortunate inhabitant of a free and democratic country, but instead the victim of an oppressive tyranny, you might well feel more comfy clutching some form of teddy – and an ESA is laughably easy to acquire. Unlike service animals for the blind or deaf, emotional support animals don’t need to be trained or properly certified. All you need to designate your pet an ESA is a letter from a therapist saying that the animal contributes to your psychological wellbeing. No therapist? No sweat. Any number of online sites will offer you the same service for a fee and throw in some ESA dog tags and a smashing official-looking harness just like the one on Kirrin’s dog.

Who these days would have the bottle to refuse entry to any ESA? A journalist for the New Yorker once took a succession of fake support animals in hi-vis gear for a jaunt around the city: a snake, an alpaca and a nice hairy pig called Daphne. They visited high end shops, museums and fancy restaurants, and not a soul turned Daphne away. In the UK more than 50,000 people have signed a petition demanding that our government legally recognises ESAs, which is in fact exactly the sort of thing they might do. Just think, parliamentary debates could soon double up as blood sports: Lib Dem support rabbits on the run from Labour dogs.

I almost signed the petition, though there’s no proof that any ESA does any actual good. Jeffrey Younggren at the University of New Mexico has written a number of scientific papers pointing out that there’s no real evidence that support animals help with anxiety at all: ‘An ESA is an example of a well-intentioned idea that has metastasised and developed into a world of nonsense.’

But what about the animals themselves? This is what I’ve been itching to ask the Kirrins. Surely, the more anxious you are, the worse for them. Don’t you worry about all this clutching and fondling? Isn’t it a strain for the animals you claim to love? Just a few days ago, the TV vet Dr Scott Miller was in the news explaining that much of the behaviour we think of as friendly is actually a dog’s way of exhibiting stress. Wild tail-wagging can mean nerves; rolling on to their back with their tummy up can be a sign of submission. Don’t embrace or coddle your dog too much, cautioned Dr Scott, because it makes them insecure. Your dog wants you to be pack leader, calm and in control. Don’t we all.

Perhaps Kirrin could choose another animal? Parrots are popular in ESA circles. But parrots don’t much want to shoulder the weight of Gen Z angst either, as it happens. ‘I have to be blunt,’ says a parrot breeder in response to an ESA enquiry, ‘I don’t think a bird is what you’re looking for. Most of the behaviours that humans would describe as cuddly would be interpreted by a bird as intensely sexual: stroking a bird down its back, touching under its wings and similar. If you touch a bird this way, it’s going to interpret these as you courting it or even having sex with it. A bird is not going to respond to your anxiety by soothing or calming you.’

It looks from his profile photo as if Kirrin Medcalf’s emotional support dog is a border collie. Collies were bred to help humans herd sheep, and the only really happy collies I’ve met have been working dogs. The others, the house pets, just skulk about looking haunted, like dogs with a lost vocation. Sometimes they herd cars or children in a desultory, neurotic way. They long to do what they were born for. They can’t buck their biology, that’s the trouble.

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