'Emotional support duck' goes viral after plane ride

ASHEVILLE, N.C. — Daniel the emotional support duck's 15 minutes of fame began a week ago when Asheville author Mark Essig, on a short flight from Charlotte, encountered the little fellow waddling up the aisle and started tweeting about him.

"He is an Indian Runner (an Indonesian breed), a certified emotional support duck, 4 years old, wears a Captain America diaper," Essig tweeted, along with a photo of the adorable fowl wearing red shoes.

And the world fell in love.

BuzzFeed News picked up the story, as well as the website Mashable and the British paper the Telegraph. Essig, who lives in Asheville with his wife and two young children, said the BBC interviewed him Monday night.

Owner Carla Fitzgerald has done interviews with ABC News and Inside Edition. She is a little surprised at the attention but says it's well-deserved.

"It’s just weird how a little six-pound duck could cause such an uproar, you know?" Fitzgerald, 37, said with a laugh. "It’s crazy, in a very good way, and I’m very happy it’s in a good way. But what’s not to love about him? He’s a happy little guy, and he makes other people happy. He makes me happy."

Essig, the author of Lesser Beasts, a book about the history of domestic pigs, thinks the nation simply needs a respite from relentlessly ugly political news.

"I think two things are going on here," Essig said. "He's a cute animal in a cute outfit, and that outfit did include the diaper. And I have to give some credit to my own artistic skills — I got that duck framed in just the right light, and he was horribly back lit — and then he turned for just the right touch of a profile. It was really kind of touching and poignant. I was projecting the emotion."

In that picture, Daniel was gazing out the window. That might have been the biggest hit in Essig's tweets.

"In a sense, I think the experience of those moments recalled for him some deep, ancestral memory of what it was like being in the clouds," Essig said.

A former business editor at the Citizen-Times, Essig is known for a dry sense of humor. Last Sunday, he was returning home from Memphis when his world went viral.

"I have flown a fair amount, but I've never seen any companion poultry on a plane," he said.

Fitzgerald lives outside Milwaukee with her husband, Frank, and another adopted duck, Bubba the Pekin duck, who had to have a foot amputation because of a medical condition. Daniel is friends with Bubba and even alerts Fitzgerald when his housemate's diaper needs changing.

Fitzgerald, who was flying to Asheville to visit friends, said Daniel truly works miracles for her. She's working to have him formally registered as a support animal.

"About a year after I got Daniel I was involved in a really nasty accident," Fitzgerald said, referring to February 2013. "I was driving my horse and carriage in downtown Milwaukee, and someone was paying more attention to the phone than the road, and she slammed into the back of my horse carriage and sent me me flying onto the metal grate drawbridge."

The force crushed the carriage "like a Coke can," she said, and sent her 2,000-pound-plus Percheron sliding across the bridge. The horse had whiplash for the next year, but Fitzgerald was in worse shape.

"It took me four months to learn how to walk again," said Fitzgerald, who is still unable to work and is seeking disability status. "My brain wasn’t communicating with my right leg and it atrophied up. Lots and lots and lots of physical therapy. It took me more than a year to get the use back in my left arm."

Now she suffers with chronic pain and post-traumatic stress disorder. She simply doesn't travel or do crowds without Daniel, who has a knack for gauging her moods.

"First of all, he’s got a calming effect," Fitzgerald said. "Second of all, if I start heading toward the PTSD, he senses it right away and he’s able to calm me down. If I’m standing he’ll try to climb on my legs, and if I'm sitting he will face me. He’ll climb my chest, and that's my cue for me to lie down. And then he sits on my chest until it passes. Then once it passes, we go about our day."

Fitzgerald adopted Daniel when the duckling was just two days old.

"He imprinted on me, and now as far as he’s concerned he’s people with feathers and not a duck," Fitzgerald said with a laugh. "I’ve taken him on play dates with other ducks and he wants nothing to do with it. He has his playroom that has all kinds of toys in — keyboards and buttons he can push and it plays a song. That’s what he wants to play with with all day long. If the batteries give out, he pitches a fit. He will stomp his feet, he will huff, he’ll raise his hackles, he’ll give me stink eye."

Daniel usually wakes her up around 8:30 a.m. and begins his regular routine.

"He walks to the tub, gets in and takes a shower," Fitzgerald said. "When he’s finished with his shower, he’ll yell -- 'quaaackk, bweep, bweepp, bweep.' I take him to the changing table and ask, which one do you want? And he usually picks out the Captain America diaper."

A very affectionate fowl, Daniel checks on Fitzgerald throughout the day, sopping up some affection along the way. He often wants her to pick him up, and "he loves to be tickled."

On the plane, Daniel waddled around the cabin in the Captain America diaper and red shoes, greeting children and adults — and at one point peered out the window. Occasionally, he'd circle back to give his owner a gentle peck on the mouth.

"My seatmate, CLT➡️AVL, is this handsome duck named Daniel," Essig tweeted. "His gentle quacking eases the sadness of leaving."

In offering a brief video of Daniel, Essig noted, "Here is a 3-second video of Daniel the emotional support duck. His human says, 'and wagging? That's happy.'"

Essig said he first met Daniel in the terminal before boarding, where the duck patiently waited to board.

"He was in one of those little pet stroller things, and I peeked in expecting to see a dog and there was a duck," Essig said. "I said, 'Hello.'"

Essig says the duck was well-behaved and obviously offered some cheer to those aboard the plane. Daniel clearly offered support to his human companion.

"She would give the duck a little kiss," he said. "They were clearly very close."

While Essig, who is also the author of Edison and the Electric Chair, a Story of Light and Death, is surprised at the attention the encounter is getting, he's also amused. And naturally, he also shamelessly tweeted out a plug for Lesser Beasts, which sold well but not enough for him to retire.

"I only write about things that nobody cares about," Essig joked. "I really think there's a lot of money in this."

He and Fitzgerald seriously doubt that, but they both seem to be enjoying Daniel's flirtation with fame.

"He's gotten me out of some serious pickles, so that's kind of cool," Fitzgerald said. "He loves everybody."


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