Service with a Snarl

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

Even in situations such as the one described by Fried, in which a renter — perhaps disingenuously — slips pets into the building, San Francisco officials still aggressively push for allowing the animals to stay. Cases involving recalcitrant landlords are often referred to the city's Human Rights Commission. Ed Illumin, the commission's fair housing and public accommodation compliance officer, said anyone busted with pets should follow their landlord's orders and move them off the premises — at first. "Come to the landlord, say 'They're gone,' and once that's established, get a doctor's statement declaring you have a disability and part of the prescription to treat your disability is to have service animals," he says. "And the law is on your side."

Stubborn landlords with money to burn and a good attorney "stretch things out," he says. "But, ultimately, they all fail. ... Ultimately they have to comply with the law."


At the start of the year, a ripple went through the nation's disabled community, as the previously noted changes to the ADA were rumored to be imminent. In addition to narrowing the definition of a service animal, the new rules would also have eliminated certain species from consideration, including "wild animals (including nonhuman primates born in captivity), reptiles, rabbits, farm animals (including horses, miniature horses, ponies, pigs, and goats), ferrets, amphibians, and rodents."

As quickly as the hue and cry went out among supporters of the mentally ill, the proposals died with a whimper in late January. Rahm Emanuel, President Obama's chief of staff, ordered the Department of Justice to hold off from implementing any changes until the incoming administration could amply review them. It's a safe bet that reviewing these proposals — or even appointing the personnel to do so — is not a top priority of the Obama administration.

But even if the ADA's potential new rules are adopted, Charles Esler and Cosmie Silfa will still likely be able to take their animals anywhere in San Francisco they wish. Critics have long assailed the ADA for its amorphousness — and its potential changes offer new amorphous language to replace the old. While the proposed regulations offer distinctions between untrained "comfort animals" such as Tita the Chihuahua and "psychiatric service animals," exploiting this difference seems to merely be a matter of semantics.

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.

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