I still remember the first time I learned what a seeing-eye dog was. I was about five year olds and saw a public-service ad between the cartoons and toy commercials. The image of a German shepherd wearing a harness that a blind man was holding onto as he stepped into a sidewalk stayed in my mind.
Flash forward some 35-plus years. People have often asked if my teenage son Charlie might like a therapy dog after reports surfaced a few years ago of therapy dogs helping autistic children to be calm and stay focused. Charlie himself has a bit of an aversion to dogs (in part after having some friendly canines run yapping after his bike) and when therapy dogs visit the county autism center he attends, Charlie keeps a respectful distance. But therapy dogs have been so beneficial for autistic children that, a few years ago, some families have sought approval for the animals to attend school with their children.
In recent years, there have been accounts of other animals, from parrots to iguanas, helping to calm people, to detect when they might be having a seizure, to remind them to take psychiatric medications, and more. As the February 24th Wall Street Journal says, service animals’ uses “expanded in recent years beyond the traditional tasks of helping blind and deaf people get around safely.” However, this trend “means that there are many more ways to game the system—so pet lovers need never be without their companions, even if the rules say they should leave the shih tzu at home.”
In Ocean Park, Maryland, resident Joseph Wayne Short says that his four-foot long iguana is a “service animal” who “keeps him calm.” In San Francisco, Cosmie Silfa has an iguana named Skipper who qualifies as a “service iguana” thanks to a “letter from the psychiatrist who has been treating Mr. Silfa for depression. The letter says Skippy ‘helps him to maintain a stable mood.’” And Rhonda Kimmel takes her West Highland terrier, Maxx, to the mall, the bank, and restaurants garbed in a vest that says “Therapy Dog Maxx” which she purchased online–but Maxx is not actually a therapy dog nor is Kimmel disabled.
In the face of this proliferation of therapy animals of all sorts, disability advocates have feared a backlash. Starting on March 15, the Americans With Disabilities Act will only recognize dogs as service animals and, where reasonable, trained miniature horses. Says the Wall Street Journal:
The new rules are an effort to “stop erosion of the public’s trust, which has resulted in reduced access for many individuals with disabilities who use trained service animals that adhere to high behavioral standards,” according to a Justice Department spokeswoman.
The Department of Transportation, too, tried to crack down on dubious service animals on planes, but that created more problems than it solved.
“It’s a mess,” says Toni Eames, president of the International Association of Assistance Dog Partners.
The DOT attempted to weed out passengers pretending their pets were service animals in order to avoid having to ship them as cargo or, in the case of smaller animals, to keep them in a carrier at their feet.
A passenger with a psychiatric or emotional-support animal must contact the DOT 48 hours before departure and submit a letter from a licensed mental-health professional documenting their mental or emotional condition. Mental health advocates are protesting; individuals with physical disabilities have simply to explain how the animal assists them.
As the Wall Street Journal says, even if businesses suspect that people are pretending to be disabled in order to be accompanied by their animal, or rather pet, it could be “risky” for them to deny someone access as “a business could face civil penalties of up to $55,000 for violating a person’s civil rights.”
Should other animals besides dogs (and miniature horses) be recognized as service animals?
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Photo by richardmasoner.