On a cold March day in Paris, I stood at the Eurostar U.K. immigration counter with my dog, Luna, who is an emotional support animal (ESA). Normally, dogs aren’t allowed on the Eurostar, but because of Luna’s ESA status the train company had agreed to make an exception.
And so there I was, tickets in hand, ready to go to London and feeling very excited about it. I planned to spend two whole months exploring the city with my dog.
The idea was deliciously extravagant — long walks by the Thames, world-class theater performances, pub crawls (to dog-friendly pubs, of course), puppy play dates in the park, and one very important business conference with speakers from all over the world.
A large, frowning woman inspected my passport. I asked politely if she also needed to see Luna’s ticket and paperwork, or if there was anyone special I needed to talk with before boarding because I had a service animal ticket.
“What dog?” she snapped.
I motioned toward my feet, where Luna sat in her carrier.
The woman leaned across the counter, stared down at Luna, frowned even more intensely, and then took my paperwork and began poring over it. That’s when the trouble began.
“This letter says you need the dog for air travel. It doesn’t say anything about trains,” she snarled.
I should have told her to look closer, which says I require the dog in my destination. Instead, I felt my anxiety rising and I paused for a long time before quietly stammering that I needed the dog and had already cleared it with the Eurostar office.
She glared at me for another moment, asked a few questions, took my passport and other documents, and then handed me a slip of paper and told me to sit in the corner.
Fighting anxiety, I sat on a cold bench and held Luna against my chest, trying to keep calm and warm in the freezing train station, where I would spend the next three and a half hours of my life being treated like a criminal and shuffled in and out of a small back room for interrogation.
I was asked a lot of questions, some of which I understood (When are you leaving the U.K.? What will you do while you’re here?), but one particular line of questions left me nauseated and trembling.
Because I was traveling with an emotional support animal, the unsmiling immigration officer began to ask deeply personal, not-at-all-relevant questions about my mental health, my treatment, my medications, and my dog.
I don’t know enough about the law in the U.K. to know whether her questions were truly inappropriate for that country. But I do know that in the U.S. they would be.
So I sat there, answering politely, trying not to fall apart, hoping the woman would soon let me leave and let me find a quiet spot on the train to hold Luna and let my panic pass.
I’ve felt misunderstood before. I’ve had people tell me I’m gaming the system, because to them I seem fine. I’ve had people look at me incredulously when I tell them Luna is an emotional support animal. But this woman’s questions and demeanor went beyond disbelief and misunderstanding. They were designed to make me feel small.
By choosing to travel with my dog instead of popping pills, by choosing to do something for myself other than take antidepressants, I had become a target. And because the immigration system in the U.K. (and in the U.S.) gives far too much power to each officer, I was powerless. There was nothing I could do — then or now — to make myself heard.
After three and a half hours of keeping calm and treating the nasty immigration officer with politeness and respect, she smirked at me as she denied me entry to the U.K. Still being polite, through my tears and the symptoms of a panic attack, I told her I needed to sit down for a moment. And so I sat, trying to control the waves of panic, anger, and utter disbelief.
Gruffly, she and her colleague (who had recently joined us in the small, intimidating back room) pressured and nagged at me — panic attack or no panic attack — to have my fingerprints taken like a criminal. I was handed a strongly worded letter that told me that these frightening women were allowed to use force if I didn’t comply in a time-frame that suited them.
I forced myself to stand and was fingerprinted, smirked at, and handed over for re-entry into France.
Finally, after answering a few questions (Where will you stay? How can we reach you?) for the much-kinder French police, I was released back into Paris, where I walked to a coffee shop, pulled Luna into my lap, and lost my shit — to the dismay of the sweetheart barista, who rushed to bring me a box of tissues and told me he was there if I needed anything else at all.
The next day, I returned to a different border and explained to the much more professional border officer that my previous refusal was a misunderstanding. I showed proof of funds, proof that I was attending my business conference, and several other items that the first immigration officer, for no reason, believed that I was lying about.
This time, I was allowed into the U.K., but on a shortened visa so that I could attend my business conference — and nothing more.
I’ve still never walked along the Thames with Luna on a leash beside me. I’ve never worn my red dress to see Wicked in central London. And, considering how much anxiety, money, time, and planning this run-in cost me, I’m not sure that I ever will do those things. Because how can I possibly go back to that border and try again when the nightmare could happen all over?
I don’t want to discourage you from traveling with your emotional support animal. The reason we make exceptions for emotional support animals is so that people with invisible disabilities have equal rights and opportunities. And I would never want my story to take that away from you.
But I do want to tell my story. I do want you to know that this could happen to you. I want you to be prepared. Do whatever’s necessary: Keep those Xanax on hand, keep your travel day’s schedule wide open just in case, and know the risks.
Ever felt discriminated against because of your dog? Let us know in the comments.
More stories by Gigi Griffis:
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