How are subway riders getting around the no-dogs rule?

A dog peeks out of its bag on the subway.
A dog peeks out of its bag on the subway.
Tommy Liggett/Shutterstock
A dog peeks out of its bag on the subway.

How are subway riders getting around the no-dogs rule?

A thorough investigation of the bag loophole.
July 30, 2019

The New York City subway is home to a host of bizarre sights, be it Jimmy Fallon and Miley Cyrus performing at a station in disguise or someone lugging around a Saint Bernard in an Ikea bag. In recent years, the latter seems like a much more frequent sight.

There are countless pictures on social media of four-legged commuters with the hashtag #subwaypets or #subwaydogs. The pets are the subjects of dedicated social media pages like @NYCsubwaydogs on Instagram and are included in accounts that document strange subway sights, like @subwaycreatures. The majority of pets on the subway are dogs, with some notable exceptions, like a huge iguana. Online rundowns of pups on the subway have compiled photos and videos showing dogs of all sizes peeking out of bags that range from backpacks to duffle bags.

But, to the consternation of some, they aren’t always in bags – or anything at all. In 2018, a Twitter video of a dog just on a lease on the subway prompted the official New York City subway Twitter account to direct the passenger to call 911. They later walked that recommendation back, saying that dogs are great, but they have to be in carriers.

So, what are the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s rules about commuting with pets? And are there actually more pets on the subways these days, or do they just have a larger social media following?

There are no hard numbers on how many pets are taken on the subway in general, as there’s no pet fare. Over the past 12 months, the MTA received 109 complaints about animals not properly contained in carriers, and they receive thousands of other complaints every year, according to an MTA spokeswoman. While there have been more NYPD summonses issued for unauthorized animals on public transportation this year than at this point last year – 55 so far in 2019 versus 37 in the first six months of 2018 – that may just reflect the happenstance of what cops see.

MTA rules state that pets are not allowed at MTA facilities “unless enclosed in a container and carried in a manner which would not annoy other passengers.” In comparison to other large metropolitan transportation systems, the MTA language is vaguer than other cities, which generally have more specific requirements for what qualifies as a carrier.

The MTA’s website has more specific information about what kind of pets are allowed on public transportation and what constitutes a carrier. It reiterates that small domestic pets are allowed only when they are in carriers. Most importantly, it says that no part of the animal may stick out of the container. A spokesperson for the agency said that, similar to their guidance against taking up multiple seats with luggage or large bags, the carrier must not inhibit other riders’ ability to access seating or handrails.

People with disabilities who require assistance from a service animal are the exception to the carrier requirement, but the animal must still have a harness. The Americans with Disabilities Act protects those requiring a service animal from discrimination in public places. Law enforcement may ask if the animal is required for a disability and what tasks it is trained to perform, but they are not permitted to ask to see a license. The MTA also issued applications for voluntary licenses for service dogs to avoid confusion amid the rise in popularity of emotional support animals.

Emotional support animals are defined as pets soothing to those with a variety of mental illnesses, but they lack the formal training of service dogs. There’s no accepted science to back up the necessity of emotional support animals. Most of the criticism of emotional support animals in public areas comes from stories about people attempting to fly with their emotional support turkeys or peacocks. The New York chapter of the Center for Independence of the Disabled told City & State that, while the people they represent do have serious concerns about the accessibility of public transportation in New York, people exploiting the use of emotional support animals to travel with their pets is not one of them. The MTA is clear that emotional support animals are not exempt from the rules requiring pets be inside carriers.

Because the carrier must contain the animal and prevent them from bothering and impeding other commuters, the large dogs in oversized duffle bags don’t exactly fall within the MTA’s rules, which are enforced by the New York City Police Department. If an animal is outside of a container or in an insufficient carrier, officers may ask the owner to leave the subway or issue them a ticket, which could cost a commuter $25. Fines may be disputed with the Transit Adjudication Bureau within 30 days of the violation.

Police officers don’t issue fines for unauthorized animals on public transportation very often, compared to other common infractions like fare evasion. It is unclear if that’s because improperly transported animals aren’t prevalent, or if perpetrators are simply asked to exit the subway. It’s also possible that police officers don’t always notice or sometimes determine that the pet isn’t bothering anyone and they have higher enforcement priorities. Pets deemed too large or not properly restrained can be barred from a subway car, as seen in a viral video from April of a big dog in a minimal burlap sack being refused access by the train conductor. An NYPD spokeswoman would not speak generally about how they theoretically handle improperly restrained animals on public transportation, noting that officers have discretion and each case is different.

Domestic animals on the subway are a pretty low-level concern for most commuters and law enforcement alike. Plus, New Yorkers with pets seem to mostly follow the rules. At worst, they are a mild annoyance during rush hour. At best, they are a fun interlude on a monotonous commute, like a talented busker. As long as they’re in a carrier, the MTA is not planning on cracking down on the furry fare evaders anytime soon.

Emma Bolton
is an editorial intern at City & State.
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