KALW: Airline Denies Passenger's Emotional Support Sea Lion

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 of 660 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”

This story originally aired April 1, 2016 on KALW's Crosscurrents

KALW: Letters to Santa

Every year, post offices around the country are inundated with letters to Santa Claus asking for toys, candy, puppies and more. For 103 years the post office and its volunteers have been answering these letters as part of the Letters to Santa program.

Letter to Santa Claus printed in the San Francisco Call December 20, 1908

Before the Letters to Santa program existed, it was technically illegal to open letters addressed to Santa. People cannot legally open mail addressed to another person, even if the person is fictional. But this didn’t stop vigilante postal workers. It’s rumored that the first instances of guerilla philanthropy started in the Dead Letter Office, a place for letters without viable destinations. Other apocryphal tales consist of a wealthy bachelor answering yuletide pleas.

In 1911 Postmaster General Frank H. Hitchcock granted permission to post masters to distribute letters to Santa. Many years later in 1979, the postal service expanded the program to answer letters addressed to the Easter Bunny and Mother Nature.

The program was popularized by Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show. Carson spent nearly two decades reading letters from the program including this gem.

“Dear Santa and Dear elves, Thank you for bringing us the presents. When you mess up our floors please try to clean up. Our Christmas tree is in the basement rec room this year. Don’t worry if you make noise. Dad said he won’t go down and shoot you.”

The program lives on today in post offices around the country. This year at the annual Tree Lighting ceremony at Pier 39 in San Francisco, hoards of kids drafted their own letters to Santa during a USPS workshop. Wishes range from the cosmic “I want a telescope to see space,” to the more terrestrial “I want a binder, paper, and money”. Some kids scribbled their own letters while a few younger kids didn’t write at all and just slammed stamps on the page.

“Children are very inventive. Its unbelievable,” says Augustine Ruiz, spokesperson for the Postal Service. Ruiz has been with the post office since 1984.

USPS Santa Letters Workshop at Pier 39. Co-reporter Jessica lurking there.

“So every year around July and August we start seeing these letters addressed to Santa Claus starting to trickle in,” says Ruiz “North Pole, no address other than that... We probably get in the entire Bay Area close to 6,000 letters during the season.”

Not all the letters are from children. Some of the letters are from parents asking for holiday help.

“We get a lot of letters from single mothers that are just trying to get the bare necessities for their children,” says Ruiz.

The letters get answered with the help of postal workers and volunteers. Ruiz estimates that there are hundreds of volunteers, including individuals and companies.

Individual participants visit the Hunters Point Post Office during the allotted hours and sift through huge stacks of letters looking for the ones they want to adopt. Some people come every year, some volunteers are newcomers.

One such visitor was Karen Scheerer, “I was going to go hiking but then my back hurt and I was just scrolling on Facebook and I thought ‘oh, this is so cute, I'm gonna be Santa!’ And I love shopping so it's perfect.”

The kid’s first name and age are the only personal information left on the letters. All sensitive information is redacted, so that their identity and address can be kept private. The public letters are photocopies with numbers written on the corners. This allows postal workers to match them to addresses.

Many of the gifts you can buy online or in a store. Others are impossible to shop for, but you still have to answer them as Santa in an age appropriate manner. These letters include “Did Santa invent Christmas?” “Can you grant world Peace?” and “Dear Santa, I want world peace. I bet you can do that. I wish every Isis guy will be killed.”

It’s hard to know what is perfectly appropriate for each child. There is also the added pressure of playing a mythic figure in a child’s imagination, one with moral dominion over children with his naughty and nice lists. When responding, it’s important to keep this in mind.

It’s worth it, however. There’s only so many times in life that you get to play secret Santa with a total stranger.


This story originally aired December 17, 2015 on KALW's Crosscurrents.