Miniature Horses, a "Therapy Turkey" and the Rise of Support Animals in Flight

Courtesy of Kari Whitman
Hank, living large in first class

Who said pigs can't fly? Service-animal registrations are at an all-time high as helping aides in the form of monkeys and 160-pound bulldogs make their way onto airplanes with ease.

This story first appeared in the April 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

They say the Golden Age of air travel is over. But if your anxiety is assuaged by the soothing bleats of an emotional support goat, now is a magical time to fly. Ever since the 1986 Air Carrier Access Act was passed to let seeing-eye dogs on planes, the definition of what constitutes a helping animal has stretched to a point where miniature horses and capuchin monkeys are permitted to fly. All you need is a doctor's note, a service animal registration ($64.95 online, vests and buttons included) and a critter that fits on your lap or inside your row. Cost for a therapy pet to travel: zero.

It's a recipe for misuse, and data suggests that's exactly what's happening, with service-animal registrations rising from 2,400 in 2011 to 10 times that number in 2015. The zaniest anecdotes (like the "support pig" ejected from a D.C.-bound plane after it relieved itself in the aisle or the "therapy turkey" whisked via wheelchair onto a recent Delta flight) tend to go viral. But the habit has become particularly commonplace on the LAX-JFK route favored by fussy celebrities and industry execs. "Now I don't even react when an agent tells me there are three support animals on board," says Heather Poole, a flight attendant for a major U.S. airline. "I just pray they're not too big — and that it's a dog and not a goat."

There's big and then there's Hank, a 160-pound bulldog with bum knees that Kari Whitman — a former Playboy Bunny who now works as an interior designer to star clients like Jessica Alba, Kristen Bell and Melanie Griffith — lugs around airports on a jury-rigged cart. Whitman says Hank whimpers minutes before she experiences a petit mal seizure, a signal to take medication.

Surprisingly, the proliferation of mile-high menageries hasn't caused a rise in catfights. "I haven't seen anyone go into a rage over an emotional support animal," says Poole, "though I have had passengers who refuse to sit next to them."

And lest you think the practice is relegated to mere mortals, think again: "I saw the actor that plays Superman, Henry Cavill, at the airport with his support dog," she adds. "That was a little disappointing. He's Superman."