Mad in Asia Pacific speaks to Tod Emko, Founder of Darwin Animal Doctors, about his experience living with psycho-social disabilities and his three-legged service dog, Piggy!

MIAP: Emotional animal services (ESAs) are not an extremely common service to deal with emotional distress but their popularity is rising recently. There seems to be quite a long way to go to acknowledge that animals can be primary sources of comfort and support. Could you tell us what brought your attention to animals, and in particular Piggy, as your primary source of emotional support instead of the more ‘traditional’ methods of support for psychosocial distress?

Believe it or not, it was my own three-legged dog Piggy that brought my attention to animals being a fantastic primary source of support. It may seem ironic, but to me it’s the most natural thing in the world, knowing what I know now.

I met Piggy when he was a puppy, a month after he got hit by a bus in the Dominican Republic. I brought him back to NYC, a newly three-legged pup from his accident. And in NYC, I discovered that Piggy had suffered so much from his accident, that he had developed the ability to detect when others were suffering around him. When I would walk him in Central Park, he would suddenly stop, veer off the trail, and then run up to one person out of all the people in Central Park, and place his paw on their foot, laying at their feet looking up at them. The person would inevitably start crying and saying, “how did you know I needed that?” to Piggy. I would ask if they were ok, and they would respond saying things such as “I just lost my dog yesterday,” or “my best friend just died this morning, and your dog could tell.”

His empathy inspired me to get him trained as a service dog. It wasn’t something I anticipated would change my life as much as it eventually did. At the time, I was on the standard pharmaceutical treatment – antidepressants, and I hated them all. And the only answer I ever heard in response to hating how I felt and functioned on antidepressants, was to put me on a different antidepressant. But then Piggy became my service dog, and I had no idea that I could thrive as well as I could, with his help. Piggy is trained to detect when I’m about to have a PTSD or dissociative episode and to stop and signal me to sit down until the threat of the episode passes. Having a full-blown episode can stop me from functioning properly for days. Having one in public is downright dangerous due to how disoriented I can be. So Piggy’s service is essential to keeping me safe. The sheer empathy and connection of his service, his presence, taught me how to feel human for the first time in a long time.

Piggy was one of the countless dogs hit by vehicles on the roads of a developing country. His story could have been so easily forgotten. But he changed my life, and now he helps countless other children whom he visits in schools and hospitals. I wondered, how many other beings are there like him out there in the world, who deserve a chance and a long life, but would likely have lives cut short due to poor circumstances? His journey inspired me to create our nonprofit, Darwin Animal Doctors, to help others like him around the world. Humans and dogs have evolved together over tens of thousands of years to help each other thrive. And dogs can teach us a lot of fundamentals about what we need and what we feel, that modern-day living has made us forget. 

MIAP: Alternative support methods are usually seen as secondary, less-than and complimentary to the use of medicines and conventional methods of psychiatry in most parts of the world. Are ESAs acknowledged as having the capacity to be primary sources of emotional support? What has been your experience with this as it challenges the more traditional narratives of psychiatry and recovery?

To answer this most accurately, there are three different categories that we should clarify here:

  • An Emotional Support Animal (ESA) is an animal paired with a person by a healthcare professional. By providing emotional support, the ESA, by nature, helps the person thrive just by being there. So the person understandably needs the ESA around as much as possible.
  • Therapy Animal is one trained to be the same type of emotional support as an ESA but provides that service to other people (not their handler), or to groups. To provide this support, therapy animals are often allowed in places that do not usually allow animals, like libraries or hospitals.
  • Service Animal is one trained to perform specific tasks that accommodate their person’s disability. Most people are accustomed to Seeing Eye dogs, but service animals can perform any job that addresses a myriad of disabilities. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) even specifies that service animals can be trained to help mental disorders, like PTSD.

ADA provides examples of such work or tasks as including, “guiding people who are blind, alerting people who are deaf, pulling a wheelchair, alerting and protecting a person who is having a seizure, reminding a person with mental illness to take prescribed medications, calming a person with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) during an anxiety attack, or performing other duties.” Because a Service Animal is required for a person to function in daily life, the ADA ensures that it is not barred from access anywhere that a person normally would. So they enjoy the most respect from both the law as well as society.

On that note, ESAs can also make a world of difference to people who are suffering. And they do enjoy more privilege than regular pets, as more companies are starting to accommodate them. However, compared to Therapy or Service Animals, they tend to be a punch line in popular culture. There’s often a sort of assumption that if ESAs come up in pop culture conversations, that they’re a fraudulent concept in general. This is despite ESAs true power to help people who are genuinely suffering to function in areas where they formerly could not. Compare that to other circumstances where, for instance, a veteran would need accommodation for PTSD treatment that involves serious medication. Chances are that a popular culture conversation would not dare make fun of the latter form of treatment, even if the outcome resulted in an incident or news coverage.

With Piggy being a service dog, technically I should not have run into any uncomfortable conversations, as he would be legally allowed anywhere that I would be. However, despite ADA federal laws, a lot of businesses and even government offices have not reached ADA compliance. I have worked in high-rise office buildings in Manhattan that have not allowed Service Animals except for Seeing Eye dogs. I have been to a US Post Office this past week that had a huge sign on the wall saying, “No dogs allowed except seeing-eye dogs,” and I have had to decide if I wanted to stay outside with Piggy, or have a fight with them over Piggy. After all, some things can be legal, but still not allowed or accepted if the law is not known well enough. This is exemplified by the sign at my local post office. “Seeing Eye” is not a category of a service dog, but a specific company name in New Jersey. This shows that common knowledge can have more power than the law or legal terms, even in a government building. 

This is why I feel that the best ambassadors for making ESAs, Therapy Animals, and Service Animals more accepted in society, are the animals themselves! Properly trained, properly behaved, viewed by people as being an essential part of a person’s life and functioning. No one who sees that would question their validity compared to traditional psychiatric treatments!

MIAP: It’s really unfair that there are provisions in place but large gaps with implementation and compliance which essentially results in your exclusion from participation. Where do you think the resistance is coming from, in accepting ESAs as a primary source of support for persons with psychosocial disabilities? What can be done, in your experience and opinion, to create spaces more accessible and welcoming to the use of ESAs?

I would say the main societal resistance in accepting working animals as primary support for people like me, is the lack of visibility of such animals. It’s a vicious sort of chicken-and-the-egg dilemma. Right now, even among advocacy organisations or in corporations targeting persons with disabilities, there is often a lack of institutional understanding of working animals, and thus a lack of accommodation or acceptance of them. That lack of acceptance makes it harder for working animals to be seen, and that in turn keeps such animals out of the purview of these organizations.

For example, I just had a conflict with a potential employer in NYC that resulted in having to turn down an otherwise great job. I applied for the position via a remote job board site, and it was for a job at an activism nonprofit for marginalized communities; it seemed perfect! Being both a good position as well as a remote one, it was a gruelling two-month interview process. Finally, at the offer stage, they blithely said “and the job is in-office” and I said, “Wait! I applied for a remote job since a traditional Manhattan office building can’t accommodate a service dog, much less, one with a disability. You don’t have a ramp into the building for his cart, and you don’t have a SARA (service animal relief area).” They simply said, “Well, the job has evolved, it is in-office now, so just bring your service dog, what’s the big deal.” So, after a couple of weeks of trying to negotiate, I, unfortunately, had to turn down a good job with benefits.

So society has quite a way to go! But on the flip side, there are a lot more options for us now as well, in places where working animals are starting to be seen more. Places where Piggy works, like many comic book conventions (traditionally a refuge for the marginalized), now have procedures in place to make sure that working animals can receive ADA tags to be recognized, and given special entrance options along with wheelchairs and accessible transportation to ensure they do not get trampled by the crowd. 

I also feel that pop culture and media can do a world of good in bringing working animals to the foreground in more ways than just a punchline. Seeing working dogs on TV shows leads to more media attention to them. Like how articles on prison dogs in Orange Is the New Black can link to more information about prison dogs. We love bringing working dogs to media, like when we brought Piggy onto the Today Show. The more working animals are seen in the proper spotlight, the more they will be appreciated for who they really are! 

MIAP: Your work at Darwin Animal Doctors is amazing! Cultivating humane communities and supporting local ownership are values that resonate with the psychosocial disability community as well. Could the humane education program at DAD be applied to work with people too? If so, how?

Thank you! And oh yes, we are ultimately interested in teaching children to marginalise less. And that means not putting a hierarchy of value onto sentient beings. Instead, focusing on learning the interconnectedness and interdependency of all living beings. And if we don’t want children to put different levels of value onto animals, we definitely wouldn’t want them to value groups of humans differently! For instance, in the Dominican Republic, in a school for children who are experiencing severe social disadvantages, we asked the children to choose an animal they were scared of or didn’t like. And we taught them to research these animals and make a presentation on why they didn’t like these animals. Of course, the more they learned, the more they appreciated these animals. And the same went for their fellow humans. The students were asked what problems there were in the community, and they described all sorts of social problems wrought from criminals or lack of social services. By the end of the program, however, they created campaigns on how to work together to help the community overcome their problems.  

Another big barrier to service animals becoming a more realistic option for more people is the budget. Getting an animal trained and certified can be very costly. If you are going to invest in training a working companion, definitely consider pet insurance. If anything happens to the animal you bond and work with daily, it can be crushing in so many ways, including financially. The relief you feel having proper medical coverage for your service friend can offset the stress of an illness or injury considerably. When properly trained and insured, the value and beauty that your ESA brings you can be shared with so many as well.

Piggy’s school visits are becoming less frequent, however, as Piggy is eleven years old and approaching retirement. And recently, he was diagnosed with having a mast cell tumour that was just removed. But, his inspiration continues to spread. More countries around the world are asking for his program in order to inspire their children to overcome adversity!

Tod Emko is a conservationist from New York City. He has saved animals from Antarctica to the equator since 2008, but his greatest accomplishment is probably raising Piggy, the three-legged dog who was the inspiration that led to the creation of Darwin Animal Doctors. Together, Tod and his service dog Piggy visit schools and teach children that they can overcome unimaginable struggles, both mental and physical. And that being different is just another kind of superpower.