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Missouri lawmakers could put collar on fake service animals

Missouri lawmakers could put collar on fake service animals

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JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri lawmakers could be in for some monkey business when they return to action next month.

Under legislation proposed by a St. Charles lawmaker, people using phony emotional support animals could be charged with a misdemeanor crime.

“We want to protect those people who don’t have a choice about having a service dog,” said Republican Rep. Chrissy Sommer.

It’s not the first time the Missouri Legislature has debated the subject, but it follows efforts by airlines and communities to rein in the growing number of people traveling, shopping and dining in restaurants with a variety of animals.

Legitimate users of animal assistants say the rise in the number of fake support animals has made it harder for them to find acceptance for their trained companions in stores and other public places.

Under the federal Americans With Disabilities Act, restaurants and other businesses are required to allow service dogs and miniature horses — the only two animals recognized as service animals — in areas open to the public.

Last month, the Creve Coeur City Council unanimously approved a March 31 deadline for a local resident to find new homes for her three monkeys, which she says she keeps as emotional support animals.

Last year, police at a Florida airport removed a passenger who refused to get off a flight after she was found carrying an “emotional support squirrel” in violation of the airline’s policy.

Sommer said the proposed legislation would stop people from taking advantage of property owners and private places that typically ban animals or certain breeds.

“Some of these business owners don’t know what to do in many cases,” Sommer said. “If someone tries to pass off their pet as a service dog, this gives businesses some guidelines on what they can do.”

If approved, the proposed law would add mental health to a list of reasons why people have a service dog, rather than limiting it to, for example, people with physical limitations.

The legislation, which also is being sponsored in the Senate by Sen. Bill White, R-Joplin, notes that a psychological service dog would be trained for an owner who has a psychiatric disability, medical condition or developmental disability.

Under the proposal, any person knowingly misrepresenting a dog as a service dog for the purposes of receiving accommodations regarding service dogs under the Americans With Disabilities Act and the Fair Housing Act would be guilty of a misdemeanor.

Reports of individuals impersonating a person with a disability or misrepresenting an animal as a service animal would be handled by the Missouri Commission on Human Rights.

The state also would make placards available to businesses stating that service dogs are welcome and that misrepresenting a service dog is a violation of Missouri law.

A year ago, the issue of bringing pets to work hit some lawmakers hard when Missouri House officials banned state representatives and staff from bringing animals to work, saying in a revised policy handbook that pets are antithetical to maintaining “a professional and respectful work environment free from unnecessary distractions or impediments.”

During the heat of the 4½-month legislative session — when brains are taxed, hours are long and debates are heated — dogs play an emotional support role amid the chaos, Rep. Peter Merideth, D-St. Louis, said at the time.

The legislation is House Bill 1319 and Senate Bill 750. The legislative session begins Jan. 8.

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