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Service with a Snarl 

In San Francisco, lizards, rodents, and vicious Chihuahuas have all been declared service animals.

Wednesday, Jun 17 2009
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As the number of service animals tucked in purses, led onto buses, and walked into restaurants has proliferated, so has rancor from organizations representing the sight-impaired users of "traditional" service dogs. In recent years, a consortium of guide dog organizations has aggressively lobbied the federal government to clarify its aforementioned operating definition of a service creature to deny "emotional support animals" such as Skippy or Tita the same legal classification and level of deference as a meticulously trained guide dog. This has sparked a contentious and awkward internecine battle within the disabled community. Proponents of the status quo accuse guide dog users of a trait, interestingly, synonymous with canines — territoriality.

"I suppose maybe I am a little territorial," admits Ann Kysor, the president of Guide Dog Users of California. "This [public access] is something we fought to gain over the years — and a lot of us feel like our quality of life is being eroded away by being constantly interfered with by out-of-control animals out there. And it makes us look bad if some so-called service animal is in a store running amok, and the next time the owner says, 'No, no, I don't want any dogs in here.'"

San Francisco is a nexus of animal lovers, disabled people, and extreme sensitivity to the treatment of the disabled. A number of guide dog users told SF Weekly that they have never navigated a minefield of yowling service animals the way they regularly do in this city. Having their guide dogs barked at or lunged at by a fellow service animal has come to be an almost daily occurrence — and for a guide dog user, this isn't just inconvenient, but dangerous. When asked how they know the animal hassling their guide dog is a service animal, a common refrain among the sight-impaired is that the owner of the offending creature often shouts, "It's a service animal!" as if this excuses aggressive behavior. Gallingly, the follow-up to "It's a service animal!" is not infrequently, "Where can I get a harness like yours?"

Actually, you can buy dog harnesses at a plethora of sites on the Internet, along with custom-made placards declaring your pet to be a service animal. This feeds into guide dog users' other complaint — rules meant to accommodate the use of service dogs in public are so lax that any disingenuous person can elude them with the greatest of ease. Federal laws do not require service animals to wear vests or any other form of identification (tags such as those issued by Animal Control are not mandatory). Therefore, the city policy recommended by the Mayor's Office on Disability — and practiced by Muni — is for a business owner or bus driver to ask a patron, "Is that your pet?" If the answer is "No" or "It's a service animal," then the conversation is over.

"I could go down to the SPCA, pick up a German shepherd that was dropped off there because he was aggressive, slap a little coat on him, take him on Muni, and say, 'This is my service animal,'" says guide dog user Jonathan Lyens, who works in the Mayor's Office of Public Policy and Finance. "And you can't say anything to me." (Actually, Lyens is wrong. You don't need the "little coat.")

Such a scenario is not all that far-fetched. Security guards at chic stores, restaurateurs, and, especially, Muni drivers have learned not to push this issue. On any given day, numerous dogs, some adorned with ostentatious Red Cross tags or official-looking ID cards, can be spotted on public transit. Approached by SF Weekly, quite a few of these riders candidly admitted that they are in no way disabled and these animals are pets — but they enjoy taking them on the bus or train for free. "It got to be a hassle to have to pay the $1.50 and put a muzzle on him," one twentysomething woman on the 22 Fillmore said of her Chihuahua–rat terrier mix. She whipped out a laminated placard identifying the dog as a service animal that she'd printed up at home: "I went on Dogster.com. It was easy."


In June 2008, the Department of Justice issued a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking regarding potential changes to the Americans with Disabilities Act. The bulletin stated that many "have assumed that any person with a psychiatric condition whose pet provided comfort to them was covered by the ADA." This, the Department of Justice continued, was never the intention of the law — "Animals whose sole function is to provide emotional support, comfort, therapy, companionship, therapeutic benefits, or promote emotional well-being are not 'service animals.'"

And yet decades of legal rulings have soundly established the rights of the disabled to demand "reasonable accommodation" for animals that alleviate their hardships through the mere act of being animals. It could be argued that the creators of the ADA should have predicted the current situation would come to pass, as many of those cases were decided years before the law's creation in 1990. In 1979, for example, a mentally ill Georgia woman named Laura Majors sued the housing authority of DeKalb County for refusing to alter a no-pets policy to accommodate her toy poodle, Sparky, on whom she had "an emotional dependence." A Fifth Circuit Court judge ruled in 1982 that Majors had "a mental disorder requiring the companionship of the dog," and that the county housing authority had violated the federal Rehabilitation Act — the ADA's legal predecessor.

About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Bio:
Joe Eskenazi was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. "Your humble narrator" was a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015. He resides in the Excelsior with his wife, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.

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