Service with a Snarl

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

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."

After the last case of the day, the public cleared out of the City Hall hearing room and the police and Animal Control officers shot the breeze. Herndon, however, could only shake his head. That dog? A service dog? Regarding the law, he fumed, "This is just a lack of common sense. Here we have a dog that obviously presents a danger to the public, and [Morris] wants to get service dog tags and expose more members of the public in more and more dangerous areas. I don't know about you, but I don't want to be in a restaurant next to that dog."

Yet Herndon had no say on whether Morris could declare her dog a service animal; nor did anyone else. He did have a say on whether the dog would be destroyed, however. But, no, Herndon did not kill Morris' dog. Fiona was officially registered as a "vicious and dangerous dog" with the city, neutered, and released to her grateful owner several days later with strict instructions to keep the dog publicly muzzled at all times. Within a month, she had been both warned and cited for not muzzling the dog — and, according to Denny, during one confrontation with an Animal Control officer, Morris panicked and fled the scene, leaving Fiona's leash in the hands of the shocked officer.

At the same time, the police and Animal Control were called to Morris' apartment after complaints of rat hoarding; Animal Control memos note 47 rats being kept on the premises. Morris says she rehoused all but four of the rodents with friends by the end of April. Meanwhile, several people in her neighborhood complained to the police in May about their yards suddenly being infested with white-and-black rats.

"I've been on antipsychotics for a long time, but I stopped taking pills," Morris told SF Weekly. "I feel normal with my animals." Without her dog, rats, and turtles (of which she says there are just two), "I don't feel whole."

When asked whether she still planned to declare Fiona a service animal, Morris' response was instantaneous: "Oh, I totally am." At the church dining rooms she visits, "all the other kids have" service dogs. She wants one, too. When she gets around to visiting a doctor or therapist who will provide her with a letter, she will take it to San Francisco Animal Care and Control. She will fill out the forms and be presented with the tags. Director Katz confirmed there is nothing she can do to keep this from happening. She has no discretion in the matter.

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