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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

Page 4 of 5

Though the ADA and guide dog community obsess over the notion of recognizing only "animals that do work or perform a task," the notion of what constitutes "work" or a "task" is open for debate. Animal Control director Katz, a former deputy city attorney, notes it could be something as mundane as a cat purring to alleviate its owner's mental condition — and the law appears to allow for this type of wiggle room. It's entirely conceivable that a mentally ill person now granted a service animal because he merely grows anxious in public could just as well claim that he has "trained" the animal to calm him when it senses the onset of his mental disability.

Additionally, changes to the ADA may never be felt in San Francisco because the federal law is intended to ensure a minimum level of protection for the disabled, not the maximum. California laws already surpass the ADA in providing a far broader definition of the term "disabled." Even if Skippy the iguana is in the future no longer granted ADA protection, state and local rules need not follow suit.

As for the suggestion made by many guide dog organizations that service animals must meet a behavior standard before being legally recognized, this proposal is dead on arrival in every conceivable way. First, the Department of Justice has expressed no interest in wading into this morass. Second, the creation of new bureaucracy to administer a yet-to-be-created standardized test was untenable even before the economic downturn. And, finally, no government agency desires to be legally on the hook for approving an animal that later gravely misbehaves in public. Carl Friedman, the former longtime director of San Francisco Animal Care and Control, notes that the city's service dog tag program was painstakingly crafted to avoid this situation; receiving tags doesn't denote the city has recognized an animal as a service dog but simply that its owner has signed an affidavit swearing it to be so.

Perhaps the two men in San Francisco most frustrated with the lax and counterintuitive rules governing service animals are Sergeant Bill Herndon and Officer John Denny, who work the police department's Vicious and Dangerous Animals unit. Herndon notes that there is nothing preventing a dog designated by the city as "vicious and dangerous" being declared a service animal. He recalls a number of cases involving large, menacing pit bulls tied to wheelchairs or walked onto the bus and has, on multiple occasions, had to order the euthanization of service dogs that attacked people.

"The federal law needs to be redone. It's so abused," Herndon says. He believes that most of the folks seen walking animals into stores or onto buses are flouting the law — but he'll never know, because the ADA specifically states "a public accommodation shall not require documentation, such as proof that the animal has been certified or licensed as a service animal." To do so would be "inappropriate and burdensome." While you have to sign the aforementioned affidavit to receive service dog tags, and California law forbids anyone from falsely claiming to be a service dog user, officials at Animal Control and the San Francisco Police Department couldn't recall anyone ever being accused, let alone found guilty, of such infractions.

Landlords, transit drivers, health inspectors, security guards, and even the police told SF Weekly that the possibility of being on the wrong end of a federal disability lawsuit keeps them turning a blind eye to all but the most disruptive creatures claimed by their owners to be service animals. "I get cops calling telling me someone's dog has bit somebody, or someone isn't cleaning up their dog's poop, or is walking unleashed, and [the excuse] is, 'It's a service dog,'" Denny says. "What are you gonna do? I don't want to end up in federal court." The officer expects to see more service animals in San Francisco in the coming years: "The barn door is open."

Heather Morris is as painfully thin and frail as her dog, Fiona, is large and powerful. In early April, the 33-year-old had lashed the 125-pound Italian mastiff to a park bench, unmuzzled — something Animal Control officers had specifically ordered her not to do. The dog leaped onto 62-year-old Sarah Hardies and clamped onto her right breast, sending the nurse practitioner to General Hospital with five puncture wounds. One week later, Morris frenetically wrung her hands during a hearing of Vicious and Dangerous Dog Court adjudicated by Herndon as the charges were leveled against Fiona.

Investigating the biting, Denny turned up a disturbing string of incidents. It seemed that everyone on Morris' Bernal Heights block had a story about Fiona biting them, lunging at them, or uncontrollably dragging the petite woman down the street. A pair of neighbors claimed the dog ripped into their hands, and three others said it lunged toward them. Morris' elderly landlady and her caretaker said the dog snapped at them every time it saw them. Numerous witnesses described seeing Morris' hands frequently riddled with dog bites — and Morris later told SF Weekly that Fiona routinely behaves aggressively toward her and bites her. These are not flattering details to be read into evidence during a hearing at which the mortality of your dog is at stake, and Morris knew it.

In a quiet voice, she implored Herndon to give her one more chance. A recovering addict — she says she's been in Alcoholics Anonymous since November — with a history of mental illness, she says she needs this dog and is in the process of having it declared a service animal. "Please," she implored in nearly a whisper, "Don't kill my dog."

About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

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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