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Airline denies passenger's emotional support sea lion

Ted Muldoon
Sea lions at Pier 39

This story first aired on April 1, 2016 and it aired most recently in the April 1, 2024 episode of Crosscurrents.

Click the play button above to listen

Airlines have been making the news lately for all the wrong reasons. Earlier this year, hundreds of flights were canceled across the U.S. after a door plug fell off an airplane exposing over 170 passengers to frigid fast moving air. This might make some passengers anxious to fly. And for some there’s a solution for that: the ESA — or emotional support animal.

Paula Boyton has never flown with her pet sea lion, but she’s never flown without him, either. Earlier this week Paula filed a discrimination suit against the airline Lineair, for having prevented her emotional support animal from boarding a flight destined for Hawaii via San Francisco.

Paula has owned her miniature sea lion, Sparky, for 2 years now. She actually doesn’t like to use the word “own,” she tells me, “our relationship is too symbiotic.”

Paula brings Sparky practically everywhere she goes. “The salon, the grocery store, the deYoung,” Paula explains, “granted I’ve never tried to to fly with him before, but Sparky and I are joined at the flipper, as I like to say,” Paula chuckles to herself. “So you can imagine, I was just horrified when they told me that I couldn’t bring Sparky to Hawaii. He’s a miniature sea lion for crying out loud.”

Later when I spoke with Larry Blonski, spokesperson for Lineair, he was quick to comment that “when Ms. Boyton says ‘miniature,’ keep in mind that the animal in question still weighs in excess of 200 pounds…”

Larry is definitely correct about Sparky’s weight. He is a hefty animal. But then again, male California sea lions like Sparky have an average weight of660 pounds. So, relatively speaking, Sparky qualifies as rather miniature.

I asked Paula how she ended up with Sparky.

“So, it was a super rainy day at Pier 39. And, you know, I was down there watching the sea lions like I usually do, and then I spotted him. Sitting there all alone, away from the rest of the sea lions. And you know, sea lions are like crazy social animals, so I could tell just right away, he wasn’t gonna' make it… I just couldn’t bear to leave him alone. There was something in his eyes that screamed, help! ...so I guided Sparky back to my Prius with a trail of sardines. He basically imprinted on me right away.”

Paula’s kinship with sea lions runs deep. She explains, “Sparky, he was so small. He gives me so much comfort. I think it's because we both have so much in common. Small people in a family of giants… like me with my family, it's always been hard to measure up.”

Paula comes from a long line of sea lion trainers. Since the late 1800s, the Boytons have been in the business of aquatic circus. Both her father and grandfather were sea lion trainers. “My grandfather, he used to say, ‘baby girl, sea lions are in our blood,’” Paula’s grandfather created the first amusement park in North America at Coney Island called “the Sea Lion Park.”

He performed daily shows at the park until an unfortunate work-related accident claimed his right hand in 1905. Paula reassures me, however, "after that day, he just became more reliant on sea lions to help him around the house. It strengthened his bond, really”

Today the Boytons are moguls in the lotion industry. “Have you tried our product, Sea Lion Lotion?” Paula asks me. “My dad invented it in the 80s. Just look at my feet, see, no calluses–lotion just dissolves them off. It's so versatile. Its very popular as an industrial solvent you know. When I think about everything sea lions have done for my family over the years… I’m sorry, I’m getting choked up.”

Sparky is much more than a pet for Paula. He connects her with family legacy. Paula claims that Lineair’s decision regarding Sparky violates the Air Carrier Access Act of 1986 (ACAA). Which states “Carriers shall permit a service animal to accompany a qualified individual with a disability in any seat in which the person sits, unless the animal obstructs an aisle or other area that must remain unobstructed in order to facilitate an emergency evacuation.”

Paula claims that being separated from Sparky causes her extreme emotional distress, and constitutes a disability. But her distress aside, Lineair defends their decision on the basis that Sparky could not fit on Paula’s lap, and therefore would create unsafe evacuation conditions in case of an emergency landing. Paula had this to add. “That’s b******t. I fit Spark in my Prius, I sure as hell could have fit him on my lap. Plus there were open seat on the flight.”

And if that is in fact true, it would appear that the ACAA is on Paula’s side. It provides that “if a service animal cannot be accommodated at the seat location of the qualified individual with a disability whom the animal is accompanying, the carrier shall offer the passenger the opportunity to move with the animal to a seat location, if present on the aircraft, where the animal can be accommodated, as an alternative to requiring that the animal travel with checked baggage.”

In other words, on a flight with open seats, Sparky may deserve a spot, legally speaking. And as for those safety concerns? Paula remains skeptical. “I don’t buy this emergency evacuation line for a second,” Paula says, “we were flying to Hawaii, if we crashed, it would be in the ocean. And if that happened, people would be praying she was aboard. With her training, Sparky would be the freakin’ Simon Birch of sea lions.”

When I spoke with Larry Blonski of Lineair, he rattled off a number of reasons why a sea lion can’t come on a plane. “This may come as a surprise,” Larry explains, “but there is very little research on the effects of altitude on sea lions… Like what if the recycled air dried out the animal's skin? We can’t have our attendants running a bucket brigade of complimentary water cups for the duration of the flight.”

Ultimately, Larry had only this to say in response to the lawsuit. “Look, it's simple really. Our argument is that… it's a sea lion”