Animal lovers may initially take issue with proposed Missouri legislation that would crack down on people who bring pets into restricted places under the guise that they’re service animals. But in fact, such a crackdown is already happening in other states, and it’s long overdue here. Trying to pass off Muffy the Pomeranian as a guide dog in order to bring her into a restaurant diminishes public acceptance of actual service animals — and the humans who need them.
Relationships with animals of all kinds can be beneficial to people, and trained dogs have proven especially useful in tasks like guiding those who are visually impaired. The Americans With Disabilities Act has long recognized specially trained dogs (and, more rarely, miniature horses) to perform not only seeing-eye functions but also to detect seizures, monitor blood sugar for diabetics, retrieve items for disabled clients and provide a range of physical and emotional support services for those living with post-traumatic stress disorder or other psychiatric conditions.
These animals are allowed by law to accompany their handlers into venues where animals are normally prohibited, and they’re trained to behave in those settings. Few would argue with the legitimacy of that arrangement.
But there’s a troubling trend of people who don’t need service animals but who use that legal framework to take regular (or sometimes irregular) pets into restaurants, onto planes and other areas where they normally wouldn’t be allowed — sometimes to chaotic effect.
A woman last fall, for example, boarded a Frontier Airlines flight with what she called her emotional support squirrel, in defiance of the airline’s prohibition on in-flight rodents. She refused to leave, so the other passengers had to deplane so she could be physically removed.
Other issues have included supposed service dogs that turned out to be regular, poorly trained pets — at least one of which mauled a fellow airline passenger earlier this year. It doesn’t help matters that an online industry has sprung up offering bogus service animal “certification” for any pet owner who pays a fee.
As the Post-Dispatch’s Kurt Erickson reports, the pending Missouri legislation would make it a misdemeanor offense to misrepresent a pet dog as a service dog. It specifies that such misrepresentation includes offering bogus certification or deceptively outfitting the animal with a service vest.
The proposed law recognizes the legitimacy of mental health assistance animals, but it limits them to dogs and says they must be trained to assist people with diagnosed psychological conditions. No squirrels.
Such legislation deserves passage. It isn’t an insult to anyone’s pet Chihuahua, iguana or guinea pig to point out that, cute as they may be, they don’t belong in the McDonald’s booth, the Walmart aisles or on that crowded flight to Kansas City. Cuddle them at home — and let the real service animals do their jobs.