I love animals. There’s no denying it. But, despite my passion for the Wild Kingdom, the stories of “unusual” service animals have me a bit perplexed. Over the last year or so, I’ve seen several stories in the news about individuals who claim that their pets should be considered service animals, thereby enabling them to take the animals places pets normally would not be allowed.
For example, last spring, there was the story of a Texas woman and her “seeing-eye horse.” The woman, Tabitha Darling, is legally blind and accompanied her owner to places like the grocery store. ABC News also reported on individuals who used parrots, ferrets, and monkeys to help with psychological disorders.
And, yesterday, I read a story about a man living near Seattle, WA, who says that his nearly 5-foot-long boa constrictor classifies as a service animal because it can help him stop a seizure before it stops. Redrock the boa, says its owner, Daniel Greene, 46, alerts him to pending seizures by giving him a “hug.”
These stories raise all sorts of questions about public and employment-related accommodations. Surely, a horse in the freezer section at the local Acme would cause some commotion. If the store manager asked Ms. Darling to remove the horse from the store, would Ms. Darling be obligated to comply? Or would the Americans With Disabilities Act require that the horse be permitted to stay? The ADA provides that service animals can go anywhere their owners can go. But the question, of course, is “who decides what qualifies as a ‘service animal’ for purposes of disability discrimination? Good question.
For purposes of public access, the ADA defines a service animal as “any guide dog, signal dog, or other animal individually trained to provide assistance to an individual with a disability, regardless of whether they have been licensed or certified by a state or local government.”
One limit, albeit a small one, is a “service animal” that barks, growls (or hisses?) at others, or otherwise acts out of control. In that case, businesses and employers may exclude the animal, provided that the animal’s behavior posses a threat to the health or safety of others. An animal that is “scary” to the business or employer cannot be excluded without any actual display of vicious behavior.
The EEOC does not define “service animal” under the employment provisions of the ADA. Employers must consider allowing an employee with a disability to use a service animal at work unless doing so would result in undue hardship. And, because the term “service animal” is not defined in this context, employers may have to consider allowing an employee to bring in an animal that does not meet the public-access definition, such as a therapy animal.
A “therapy animal,” on the other hand, is not defined by the ADA or other federal law. Some states have laws defining a therapy animal. Generally, a therapy animal provides people with animal contact but is not limited to working with individuals with disabilities. Therapy animals are considered “pets,” which are excluded from the definition of service animal.
As always, the Job Accommodation Network (JAN) has great resources for this difficult question, including the article below, titled Service Animals In the Workplace, which was updated in March of 2009, which JAN makes available for republication as one of its countless services.