June 18, 2005.
Gwinnett Daily Post, Georgia.
LILBURN - Art Rilling considers himself a friend to humans and animals.
After all, he's spent 44 years running the Yellow River Game Ranch, a 24-acre wooded wonderland where deer, buffalo, foxes and other wild animals roam.
But an incident over a dog has a woman claiming discrimination and even looking into having criminal charges filed and the Department of Justice investigate.
Winder resident Melissa McMann, who is legally blind, said Rilling refused to accommodate her and her guide dog during a recent visit to the Lilburn ranch.
Rilling said he didn't believe the dog would be safe amid his wild animals, but McMann said her Labrador mix, Leo, is trained to guide her through any circumstance. He's visited several zoos without any problems.
But Rilling said his property contains many fawns with protective mothers known to attack animals that they view as a threat.
Growing up with a degenerative retinal disorder, McMann used a cane to get around. But after giving birth to two children, her partial blindness became worse and McMann needed more help than a piece of metal could provide.
Besides, she said, "I didn't like the stigma that came with a cane."
Just two years ago, McMann decided to get a guide dog.
"It's totally changed my life," she said, explaining that while a cane can alert her to objects in her path, the dog can maneuver around them without her ever knowing of their existence.
"I take him everywhere with me. He serves as my eyes," she said. "It's a much more dignified and graceful mode of mobility."
Without any women in her family to help her, McMann said that before getting the dog she would wait until she got home to use the restroom, but now Leo leads her straight to the handicapped stall and then the sink.
"I've never really gone anywhere by myself," she said. "To me, that's a feeling of independence."
"My only regret is I didn't do it 10 years ago."
But on June 4, when on a family outing, McMann said she felt that freedom slipping away for the first time.
The former teacher said Rilling told her she had to leave her dog in the car on a day when temperatures approached 90 degrees.
Rilling tells a slightly different story. He said he asked that a family member or friend stay with the dog while the others explored the ranch.
McMann said he refused to let her sit on the porch or in the gift shop or even the restroom with her canine companion, but Rilling said those possibilities were never mentioned.
As an attempt at compromise, the businessman printed a waiver, but McMann said it was discriminatory to ask her to sign a waiver while not making every person who enters the facility do so.
Rilling said a neighborhood dog once tunneled under the ranch's fence and was kicked by a mother deer protecting her fawn.
"If she got in with one of the deer with babies, the deer would have attacked her dog," he said. "I told her I was concerned about her safety." Rilling said he did not have a count of how many new mothers and fawns were living in the enclosure, but just a week ago he watched two babies being born.
For years, people with disabilities have toured the game ranch, Rilling said. He said a group of blind people go through the facility regularly and he has been asked about guide dogs before. In those cases, he explained his safety concern and the owners agreed to go without their companions.
"You've got to have some common sense in here and so far that hasn't come out," he said.
It wasn't the first time McMann had been stopped because of her dog, so she carried a copy of the Georgia anti-discrimination law with her.
The law says "every totally or partially blind person shall have the right to be accompanied by a guide dog, and every physically disabled person and every person shall have the right to be accompanied by a service dog."
She called the police, and an officer filled out a report calling the encounter a "domestic dispute" but would not arrest Rilling.
Gwinnett County police spokesman Darren Moloney said officers aren't specifically trained on laws of discrimination, but after reading the law, he said the officer acted appropriately.
"This lady might have valid grounds under ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) law," he said. "But the side of the road isn't the right place to argue your rights. That falls out of the Police Department's realm."
Moloney said the matter should be pursued in civil court, not criminal court.
But McMann isn't convinced.
She's contacted the Gwinnett County Solicitor's Office and talked to an attorney about filing charges in Magistrate Court. She's also talked to an advocacy group about contacting the U.S. Department of Justice, which enforces the Americans with Disabilities Act, and others to help with the situation.
The advocacy group has also filed a letter of complaint with the Gwinnett County Police Department.
She's also interested in lobbying for changes to the law to make it clearer.
"This is the problem, and no one seems to agree on the solution," she said. "You can't ask someone to get out of their wheelchair. You have to build a ramp."
Source URL: http://www.gwinnettdailypost.com/index.php?s=&url_channel_id=1&url_article_id=3292&url_subchannel_id=&change_well_id=2.
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