A first-person account of a mother who struggled to get her daughter back home from the US because she didn’t want to leave her ‘emotional support animal’ behind
Every story has a beginning and an end. I don’t know where my story begins and whether it will have an end.
Earlier this year, our daughter, then a freshman in a college in the USA got herself an Emotional Support Animal (ESA), a little chihuahua-terrier mix. An ‘emotional support animal’ — its validity needs to be endorsed by a licensed healthcare or mental health professional — is an animal companion that provides comfort/support to someone suffering from a mental or emotional disability like post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety or a
At the time around seven months old, “Lieutenant Finn” came to Keya after a round of consultations with her medical team. Not one to ever be impulsive, my teenager had spent a lot of time deliberating over this decision and its implications. Would she be able to bring Finn home to India? What was the
Even as Keya’s college announced the switch to online instruction, the international flight ban kicked in, followed by the announcement of the lockdown in India on March 25. With no idea as to how long the lockdown would continue, we started on Finn’s paperwork. Getting all the requisite documents from Keya was a fairly straightforward process, although there were vet examinations and certificates that were required. However, we would soon learn how painstaking the whole process would be at our end — in India — compounded, of course, by the lockdown and temporary closure of government offices, and our lack of familiarity with import forms and processes.
Adding to anxiety
We needed a Restricted Item Import License from the Directorate General of Foreign Trade (DGFT) which would be based on an NoC from the Department of Animal Husbandry, Dairying and Fisheries after which we would need to get a No Objection Certificate from the Animal Quarantine Services office. After weeks of follow-ups and email clarifications, our license was granted around two months after submission.
Given that an emotional support animal is meant to be a therapeutic support to a person and to travel with him/her, such a long wait would make it almost impossible for anyone with an ESA to travel unless a visit was planned months in advance, leave alone the additional stress and anxiety for someone already stressed and anxious.
There were other challenges, besides. When the Vande Bharat Mission was announced, we felt optimistic about our daughter being able to return to India until we read Air India’s Policy for carriage of pets on international flights. It read, “There is no provision to carry emotional support animals on Air India services.” Then began a series of communication with central and state ministries and consular offices pleading for Keya to be granted an exemption. I truly believed that if the Vande Bharat Mission was for distressed and stranded Indians in the USA, Keya, a student with a pre-existing emotional condition, would have been high on the priority list. Our civil aviation minister’s comments on television that these are “extraordinary times which call for special measures”, reassured me that repatriation decisions would be guided by compassion. But there was no positive response. I even sought the support of some mental health and
Allowed. No, wait.
Finally, on June 18 after hundreds of mails and three months of persistence, Keya and I received mails from two Air India executives referring to the complaints we had respectively registered on the PM’s portal. The mails said that although there were restrictions of service dogs on the ultra-long-haul flights, Air India would consider her case subject to her having all the approvals, certificates and the NoC for the import of the
Those few days between June 18 and 23, when Keya was to fly out from Houston to
In many countries like the USA, there are well developed regulatory frameworks governing and protecting ESAs that, amongst other things, permit passengers to fly with their ESAs. We need that understanding and acceptance in India too. An understanding that ESAs are not just mere animals and that they play a critical role in the treatment of an individual. No individual should be discriminated against because of a medical condition they have, least of all someone with an emotional or psychological one.
We will never understand what went wrong at the air carrier’s office to have prompted the sudden volte-face. But what we have learnt through these three months is that there’s a complete lack of understanding and concern about ESAs and a lack of empathy for people whose emotional condition requires one.
Keya meanwhile has shifted base to a rental flat in Austin, waiting out campus reopening in August. Finn, through all of this, has been her refuge and support.