Service with a Snarl

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

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.

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."


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