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Hedgehogs on a Plane


Published November 29, 2010 at 6:24 p.m.

On the day before Thanksgiving, Jennifer Goldberg flew from Chicago to Vermont to spend the holiday with her family. Accompanying Goldberg on her journey was Thembi, an African pygmy hedgehog. Thembi is a emotional support animal — literally, he's a service hedgehog. 

You can't make this shit up. 

And of course, he has his own Facebook fan page

According to 21-year-old Goldberg, who was featured in the New York Times City Room blog after a chance encounter with a reporter on the airplane, Thembi helps her with her anxiety and depression.  Since getting him, Goldberg's grades at Northwestern University have improved, as has her social life. (Note to self: Get service hedgehog immediately.)  

My questions about Thembi, who was named for Nelson Mandela's late son, are as follows: 

Does Thembi need his own seat? Or perhaps a booster seat?

Does he hang out in Goldberg's pocket, or does he have his own little carrier?

What if he has to have a poo on the flight? 

How exactly does Thembi provide comfort? Does he talk to you, do you pet him, what?

Why doesn't he have to wear a service-animal vest?

How does Thembi feel about the increased baggage fees and lack of in-flight movies? 

Apparently, other people have similar questions. The NYT blog post garnered almost 50 comments ranging from people wondering what Thembi does on his nights off to lists of diseases hedgehogs carry. Much of the online debate centered around whether animals should be allowed on already crowded planes, or in public places in general. The New York Times Magazine thoroughly covered this issue in an October 2008 piece called Creature Comforts. Some of the commenters suggested that anxious people have no business flying, or that they should just take a Xanax and get over it. 

While I think that the concept of a designated emotional support animal is sort of dubious — who's to say that poisonous service cobra isn't providing some therapeutic benefit? — I pretty much want one. Like, now. My dog basically has dissociative identity disorder, so she's got her own problems to deal with, which sort of disqualifies her from the position. But an emotional support mini donkey? Yes, please.

If a hedgehog or a guinea pig or a quokka or wombat or whatever is going to prevent someone from having a psychotic episode or a panic attack, or from just being a bog-standard asshole, then I'm all for it. As long as that animal is quieter than a screaming baby, skinnier than the fat lady who won't buy two seats and better smelling than the guy who bathed in drugstore cologne, I welcome him/her/it on a plane. Just don't try to eat my pretzels.