People will soon no longer be allowed to carry parrots, squirrels, cats and ferrets into Arizona restaurants claiming they are service animals, under a new law that restricts the types of animals people can use to help them in public places.
And attempts by some people to claim their pet is providing an emotional-comfort “service,” a ruse that has frustrated some restaurant owners, is explicitly forbidden by the law, which goes into effect later this year.
Only two kinds will be recognized service animals for the disabled in Arizona: dogs and miniature horses.
Although the part of the law that names miniature horses as eligible service animals surprised some observers — there was no push from miniature-horse owners in the state to include them — the motivation for the bill was more about excluding other animals.
Rep. Heather Carter, R-Cave Creek, sponsored House Bill 2401 at the request of the Arizona Restaurant Association, whose members said the state’s existing law, which broadly recognizes any animal that provides any service, tied their hands when it came to keeping out more exotic creatures.
“We feel the definition of service animal in Arizona is not succinct enough,” Sherry Gillespie, government-relations manager with the Arizona Restaurant Association, said during a committee hearing on the bill. “Restaurants try to make every accommodation for the people dining there, but those accommodations must be reasonable.”
Gillespie said the U.S. Department of Justice’s Americans with Disabilities Act was updated in 2011 to restrict service animals to only dogs and miniature horses and to outline the duties a service animal must perform. Arizona’s new law mirrors that, she said.
The new law allows only dogs and miniature horses to be service animals, and only if they are trained and perform work directly related to an individual’s disability, such as assisting blind people with navigation, alerting deaf individuals to the presence of people, pulling a wheelchair, alerting owners to the presence of allergens or assisting someone during a seizure.
Gov. Jan Brewer signed it into law in April, and it will go into effect 90 days after the current legislative session ends. It’s unclear when that will be.
A few people across the country use miniature horses as service animals, and the Guide Horse Foundation website says it works with such animals.
It was unclear whether anyone in Arizona uses a miniature horse as a service animal, and several miniature-horse owners here said they hadn’t heard of such an arrangement.
The horses, however, are used to provide comfort therapy to patients and the elderly.
Marcia and Jimmie Sizemore of Scottsdale have for decades taken their miniature horse, Mountain Dew, age 28, to visit patients at Arizona hospitals and nursing homes. She visits the veterans hospital in Phoenix several times a year.
“We just go from room to room and bring her over to each bed,” Marcia Sizemore said. “The patients follow us all around in their wheelchairs. They are really glad to see her.”
Marcia said they didn’t train Dew, as they call her, to be a therapy horse.
“She just has the right disposition,” she said. “And she’s been doing it since she was two.”
The waist-high horse travels in the back of the couple’s van, using a ramp to climb in. She has special rubber shoes she wears so she doesn’t slide on the hospital’s slick floors, and Marcia carries along plastic bags and a little bucket just in case.
“They say you can house-train them, but I don’t know how you’d do it,” Marcia said.
Jimmie Sizemore said while Dew has the perfect disposition to be a therapy horse, that’s not true across the board for all miniature horses. Each one has his or her own personality. He said he had never heard of someone using a miniature horse as a service animal and wasn’t too keen on the idea.
“I wouldn’t trust a horse to lead me across the road,” he said. “But they are smart. I guess you better have a good trainer.”
Arizona business owners say the value of the new law is in allowing them to keep out animals that clearly aren’t service animals.
Roxane Nielsen, who has owned Prescott Brewing Co. for 19 years, had called on legislators to clamp down on the rise in exotic animals being passed off as service animals by restaurant patrons.
“I can’t say we’ve had lions and tigers and bears, but we have had ferrets, parrots and squirrels,” she said during a committee hearing. “It used to be we would look the other way as long as there were no problems being created. But now there are problems being created.”
She said she’s seen a spike in customers trying to bring in pets, particularly dogs, under the guise of being a service animal whose job is to provide “comfort.” The new law clearly states that providing comfort, companionship, emotional support or well-being are not recognized as a service.
“This change will prevent ferrets, parrots, cats, alligators, rats and squirrels but still provides for people who need these service animals,” she said.
Louis Basile, CEO of Wildflower Bread Co., said he wants to ensure his employees are sensitive to individuals who need service animals. But he said during a committee hearing that there is a lot of abuse of the law.
“There are instances we experience on a regular basis with customers who bring in their animals and allow them to eat off the china,” he said. “It’s unbelievably disturbing to folks.”
Rep. T.J. Shope, R-Coolidge, who manages his family’s grocery store in Coolidge, said this has been an issue for grocers, too.
“We take food safety very seriously, and some creatures, in my opinion, are a potential health problem,” he said during a hearing.