Statesman Journal, Salem, Oregon.
Friday, February 24, 2006.
Folks who abhor fur in their food, rejoice! The Oregon Department of Agriculture's Food Safety Division is offering retailers, restaurateurs and Statesman Journal readers the information they need to stop people with pets from taking them inside eateries and grocery stores by disguising them as "service animals."
For far too long, some folks have been abusing the Americans with Disabilities Act. Specifically, they have been challenging store managers to know the difference between a service animal and a pet. These managers, fearing a discrimination lawsuit, have turned a blind eye to Chihuahuas in handbags.
This crowd harms the disabled community by sullying the reputation of true service animals brought into places such as Wal-Mart. They also threaten food sanitation.
Robert Clancy, who manages the Englewood East Apartments in Salem, was disgusted last week when he encountered what he believes were nothing more than pampered pets at the Lancaster Drive NE Wal-Mart.
What offended him more than the dog drool was the store's indifference to a mid-sized poodle in the produce section and a corgi in a cart.
"The third time, I specifically sought the floor manager and told her what I'd seen. All she said was 'Oh really,' and she made no attempt to do anything," Clancy said.
Wal-Mart spokeswoman Sharon Weber said all store employees are trained to follow ADA rules, but they can question an animal's service credentials if they suspect it's not authentic.
Clancy said that seeing three dogs in one week was two much for him, so he called the Marion County Health Department. He was distressed that no one there seemed interested, either. So he called the newspaper. My call to the health department also resulted in a referral, but this one brought me face to face with a helpful state employee who explained the growing problem.
Michael Govro, the food safety division's assistant administrator, said the trend of pets around public food probably stems from nebulous language in the ADA. He said public complaints to his department have been steadily rising.
Current Oregon administrative rules forbid animals in food establishments except for guide dogs for the blind and the deaf. In an effort to comply with the ADA, the state has drafted a new policy, which expands the definition of "guide dog" to "service animal."
This is where retailers are having to watch where they step. According to the ADA Web site, service animals are any animals that are individually trained to perform tasks for people with disabilities, such as guiding people who are blind or deaf, pulling wheelchairs, or alerting a person who is having a seizure. Service animals are not pets. Sitting in a purse does not constitute "service."
To their credit, store managers don't want to punish disabled folks, and they're forbidden by law to ask what a person's disability is. But they do have a right to ask what tasks the animal is trained for. If the owner can't answer from the following list, the store owner has the right to ask the owner to remove the pet.
The tasks are specifically manual, such as help with walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, learning or working for people with a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of life's major activities. Being told by a pet owner that "he makes me calm" doesn't cut it.
Lawmakers need to close the gap and give true service animals licensed identification and retailers the right to politely ask for it. Think of this as a revenue-generating idea: Trained service animals would come licensed, and the fee would be part of their cost. That's the only way to protect groceries and restaurants for the rest of us.
ccurrie@StatesmanJournal.com or (503) 399-6746
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