Comfort Creatures

Support animals help patients, but that lizard may be against the law

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Photograph by Bobby Doherty for TIME

Many people with depression or anxiety are being prescribed emotional support animals: dogs, cats, pigs, hedgehogs and, yes, iguanas.

Petey the pig contains multitudes. He is a beloved member of the Forgione household in suburban Whitestone, Queens. He is a bona fide form of prescription medicine. He is an enemy of the New York City department of health. And on a spring afternoon walk with his owner, Danielle Forgione, 1-year-old Petey is just a pig pursuing wholesome piggish endeavors: snorting, grazing, rooting through the dirt, searching out bugs.

Petey is certified as an emotional-support animal (ESA), and Forgione could use the support. Her father has brain cancer, her brother was killed in a motorcycle accident in March 2012, and she is a stay-at-home wife and mother raising six children, ages 3 to 15. Last year, Forgione was diagnosed with clinical depression and anxiety; her physician prescribed antidepression medication, but Forgione felt wary about possible side effects. Her therapist suggested a different kind of treatment, in tandem with regular counseling: a pet.

Because one of her sons is allergic to dander, dogs and cats were out. But Forgione always loved pigs. (In her living room sit 6-in. porcelain statuettes of pigs with angel wings. There's a pig cookie jar atop her refrigerator. Forgione's cell phone doesn't ring--it oinks.) So in April last year, she visited a breeder in upstate New York and brought home now 40-lb. Petey.

For pets like Petey to be certified as ESAs, all that's required is a note from a mental-health professional stating that their owners need an animal to help alleviate their symptoms. But Petey's ESA status doesn't excuse him from New York City's health code. When Forgione moved Petey into her co-op, she didn't realize that the city forbids keeping pigs in residential buildings. When one of her neighbors complained that Forgione was harboring a farm animal, representatives from the health department began making unannounced visits to inspect the apartment.

In November, the city gave Forgione an ultimatum: Relocate Petey or move out. If she does neither by July 1, Petey may be euthanized. Suddenly, the porcine remedy for the family's woes had become yet another source of heartache. "We don't want to lose him," says Forgione, 33. "He's been such a great addition. Honestly, he just cheers you up. He's so fun. He cuddles. He sleeps in bed with my son. It's a positive distraction. I feel like, How many things are going to be taken away from my family?"

But it's far from certain that the forgiones will actually lose Petey. The dispute over his legality has garnered national news attention just as ESAs are gaining popularity as alternatives or complements to more traditional treatments for mental illness. The National Service Animal Registry (NSAR), an organization that has certified service and emotional-support animals since 1995, registered about 7,000 ESAs last year. Those numbers have quadrupled over the past four years, according to CEO Tim Livingood.

With approval from a physician or therapist, NSAR has certified not just dogs (which account for most ESAs) but also cats, pigs, birds, mice, rats, hedgehogs, iguanas, rabbits and goats. With an NSAR-endorsed animal, owners can obtain vests, patches and ID cards that can help them prove to airlines or housing providers that they have a legitimate ESA.

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