Not long ago, Charles Esler's Chihuahua, Tita, chased a woman clear across Dolores Park. The dog "just gets fixated," he says nonchalantly. "It's only with females that she'll chase." Evidently, this has happened plenty of times.
Not long after that, Tita barked and lunged at a guard at the Social Security Administration, sparking a confrontation in which security attempted to bodily eject Esler from the Federal Building. He blames the incident on the guard standing over his dog.
The day before Esler met with SF Weekly, Tita bit his primary care provider. "It's only because he stood over her. He harassed her."
Finally, during our interview, while we were reaching for one of Esler's legal documents in his cramped Polk Street SRO hotel room, Tita snarled, lunged, and bit this reporter, too. We must have done something.
"She's vicious," Esler says with a smile, cradling the dog, which licks his face with abandon. "If you were to approach a guide dog without acknowledging yourself, I'm sure a guide dog would bark, too."
Actually, no. It would likely not. But Esler's problematic dog is legally recognized as every bit as much of a service dog as any seeing-eye Labrador or golden retriever with years of rigorous training. Esler, who suffers from bipolar disorder, has a note deeming Tita a vital component of his treatment regimen, penned by his psychiatrist — whom Tita has not yet bit — and has registered the dog with the City of San Francisco as a service animal. He is entitled, via federal, state, and city law, to live with her in any pet-free building, and take his churlish Chihuahua virtually anywhere he wishes: on public transportation, into stores, businesses, private and government offices; and even restaurants.
Tita was one of 500 animals to receive service dog tags in San Francisco last year from Animal Care and Control. Without ever laying eyes on the creature in question, Animal Control staff is legally mandated to grant the service tags to anyone who brings in a note on the letterhead of a doctor or therapist and then signs an affidavit stating he or she is not committing fraud. The doctors or therapists are not contacted, and Animal Control staff is not permitted to make decisions based upon the content of the note.
Shelter office supervisor Judy Choy recalls one man who brought in a letter from his dentist, claiming he needed to have a dog with him at all times to mitigate stress conditions that could lead to lockjaw. He was granted the tags.
Animal Control director Rebecca Katz notes that her staff is "not using any kind of discretion on whether to give or not give" the tags. This is what the staff prefers — and state law demands. Incidentally, San Francisco's tally of 500 service tags issued in 2008 dwarfs other California totals: San Diego, with nearly three times the inhabitants, issued only 352; Los Angeles, almost four times bigger, a scant 96.
When the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was signed into law by President George H.W. Bush in 1990, its creators certainly did not consider that their legislation — which defines a service creature as "any animal individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability" — would pave the way toward allowing someone to walk an antisocial dog that had not received formal training into a library. In the nearly 20 ensuing years, the applicable definition of what constitutes a "disability" has expanded — as has the very definition of a "service animal." In many cases, this has worked out to be a great thing. Agoraphobics and AIDS patients, for example, have been compelled to leave their homes and socialize because of the needs of their service creatures. Some homeless people have quit drinking and drugs to be able to properly care for their animals. But the ADA's amorphousness — and its daunting penalties for those who deny the rights of the disabled — has allowed the envelope to be pushed very far indeed.
In San Francisco, snakes, lizards, pit bulls, chickens, pigeons, and rodents have all been declared service animals, hauled onto public transportation, housed legally in city apartments, and, essentially, given the full run of the city.
No one would say rules regarding service animals weren't created with the best of intentions. But in densely populated, pet-crazed San Francisco, where the canines outnumber the children, many argue these well-meaning laws have gone to the dogs.
Cosmie Silfa is a short, cherubic man with a disarming smile — but that's not why he stands out on the bus. Silfa often takes his service animal, Skippy, on the 14 when he heads from his SOMA SRO room to the Mission to shop; naturally, he takes Skippy into the markets as well, or the occasional jaunt to Jack in the Box. And he frequently walks Skippy around the corner from his home to a dog park on Folsom. Skippy, by the way, is an iguana.
"To whom it may concern, I am the treating psychiatrist of Mr. Cosmie Silfa," reads the well-worn letter written on his behalf by Dr. Cynthia Resendez. "I have been treating Mr. Silfa for depression. His pet iguana, Skippy, helps him to maintain a stable mood as she provides companionship and motivation for him to stay well. She is an essential component of our treatment plan, and I recommend she continue to be able to live with Mr. Silfa in his apartment."
Resendez' note also entitles Silfa to take Skippy out, too — it's an all-access pass. And if you can ignore the surreal notion of a man toting a forearm-sized lizard, capable of using its tail as a whip, about town as part of his treatment regimen, it could be argued that Silfa is quite the success story. As late as 2005, he was a homeless drug addict living in Golden Gate Park. He entered city programs, cleaned up, received medication for his depression, and got a job at KFC through a city agency. He entered public housing, and now lives in a warm and cozy SRO room. In fact, it's exceedingly warm — Silfa keeps the thermostat between 80 and 90 degrees to better accommodate his small army of reptiles. Whatever room isn't occupied by reptiles is crammed with books, magazines, and promotional material on reptiles, knickknacks in the shape of reptiles, and reptile food. He's often seen walking Skippy on a leash into Bay Area Amphibian and Reptile Society meetings. One of his fellow members owns service tortoises — caring for them focuses their stroke-victim owner — and another has a service boa constrictor that calms her when she has panic attacks.