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Pets, Service Animals and the Legislature

by Bob Joondeph — last modified Apr 03, 2009 10:55 AM

A legislative committee explores the topic of service animals.

Stories circulate through the media about people who claim to need a "service animal" or "assistance animal" that paint the person as a scam artist who is trying to get around the rules.  It is somewhat like the broad public perception of the insanity defense as a means for criminals to fake their way out of going to jail.  There seems to be a natural inclination for people to feel that if they have to follow a rule, everybody should have to follow the same rule.  No exceptions.

At the hearing, legislators asked why these animals should be treated differently than pets.  The answer is that they are not pets.  They are an essential aid that allows a person with disabilities to function in the home and in society.

But our disability discrimination laws recognize that some people do need to be treated differently so that they can receive the same services, benefits and opportunities as others.  This topic came up yesterday when Senate Bill 875 was heard by the Senate Consumer Protection and Pubic Affairs Committee.  The bill amends a law that presently allows landlords to charge a pet fee to blind and deaf tenants who have service animals.  Federal and state civil rights laws prohibit the charging of such a fee, and so the purpose of the bill is make the laws consistent.

At the hearing, legislators asked why these animals should be treated differently than pets.  The answer is that they are not pets.  They are an essential aid that allows a person with disabilities to function in the home and in society.  A service animal should be treated by a landlord like part of the tenant.  If the animal were to cause damage to the apartment, it would be like the tenant causing that harm.  General safety or cleaning deposits that are charged to all tenants can certainly be charged to a person with a service animal.  But the animal is not a luxury or an hobby.  It is essential to the life of the person with disabilities.

Legislators also asked about the difference between a service animal like a seeing eye dog, and an assistance animal such as a cat that provides comfort to an individual with mental illness.  There are many jokes circulating in the media about people who claim to need a "comfort ferret" or "companion horse" because of a disability.  The answer is that the law only requires "reasonable" accommodations and that if a person has a medically diagnosed disability and a clinically recognized need for a companion animal in order to remain in independent living, the law protects that need.  It should also be noted that not only the person with disabilities but society as a whole benefits when a person can remain living independently, outside of an expensive care facility.

Disability laws like the ADA and Fair Housing Act exist to allow people to share in the beneifts of society, not to let them shirk the rules.  And yes, Senate Bill 875 was passed by the committee. 

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