Service animal regulations may soon change

July 12, 2010 8:06:08 PM PDT
Did you know a person can take a snake or a chicken into a restaurant or even onto a plane? Under federal law, all someone has to do is claim it is a "service animal." This summer, the Department of Justice is expected to tighten the definition of just what is a "service animal."

Wallis Brozman's furry roommate Caspin can pull her wheelchair, turn on lights and open the fridge. The 24-year-old Brozman has a neuromuscular disease called dystonia and without Caspin, life would be different.

"He allows me to be inexplicably more independent," he said.

Under the Americans with Disability Act, because Caspin is a service dog, he is allowed to go everywhere Brozman goes.

The same is true for Midnight, Shaun Bailey's service dog who provides emotional support.

"I become a totally different person. I freak out, weird out, It's not very fun," Bailey said when asked what happens if Midnight is not around.

Bailey's therapist recommended he get a dog and Midnight does have a service dog tag from Oakland. Caspin's has one from the state, but under the ADA, neither tag is necessary.

"What is really required under the ADA is, is that they say this is a service animal providing me with a service due to a disability," San Francisco Animal Care and Control Director Rebecca Katz said.

Katz says if challenged by a restaurant owner or anyone else, all that is legally required is to say it is a service animal. And it does not have to be a dog.

"I know there's a service chicken in the East Bay and I think someone in the city has a service snake. Because the way the federal law is written it's service animal, not service dog," San Francisco Police Sgt. Bill Herndon said.

San Francisco has seen a marked increase in applications for service dog tags from 244 in 2004, to 783 last year and that worries Corey Hudson, CEO of Santa Rosa-based Canine Companions for Independence, who thinks some people might be abusing the law.

"Dogs can be dogs and if they're not highly trained like we have done, they can ruin it for the rest of us. We think there's going to be a backlash, 'Oh, I don't want any dogs in here, I had a dog two months ago and it peed on my rug,'" he said.

Canine Companions gives dogs like Caspin two years of training from instructors with three to five years training themselves. Bailey trained Midnight himself.

Canine companions and other are asking Congress to change the law, better defining what service animals do and to exclude the emotional support category.

Midnight would no longer be able to accompany Bailey all the time.

"A dog just makes you feel better, but we don't think and the ADA will come out and say that that qualifies you to have access to the movie theater and restaurant and all the public accommodations as they call them in the law," Hudson said.

"It could be fine-tuned, but I have to say most of the people who apply, the vast majority are doing it legitimately and I don't think there's as much abuse as people think there is," Katz said.

The recommendations are expected by the end of summer.


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