By Scott A Sherley, Educator
“Is that a service dog?” is a question we hear all too often now. The reason is the explosion, not just in Hawai‘i but all over the country, of “emotional support animals,”, commonly referred to as “comfort animals.” However, those types of animals are not service animals even if they might be wearing a vest stating they are. There is a significant difference between the two types of animals; service vs. comfort animal.
A service animal is qualified under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. The intent for the ADA was public accommodation for people with disabilities, and it also included transportation and employment. But for our issue on animals, we will stick with the “public accommodation” scenario, being access to business for people with disabilities.
Not only did the law require accessibility for people with disabilities, it also required the acceptance of trained service animals such as seeing-eye dogs. At the time, there was no specific definition of what types of animals could be a service animal. That all changed on March 15, 2011 when the Department of Justice clarified a service animal as being a properly trained dog, or properly trained service miniature horse. No other animals were listed as acceptable. The DOJ memo, however, clarified that the ADA rules did not change anything under the Federal Fair Housing Persons with a Disability and “Reasonable Accommodation,” what that really meant is that the “comfort animal” in various forms was still acceptable in residential situations but not in commercial access to businesses such as banks, grocery stores, restaurants, etc.
There is no clarification under the Fair Housing Act as to what type of animal can be a Comfort Animal, so we are starting to see, chickens, pot-belly pigs, rabbits and more as comfort animals, rather than just cats or dogs. All the person with the animal needs to provide is a letter by a medical professional, stating the person has a disability requiring he or she to have the animal. The biggest problem we are experiencing in the industry and community is that anyone can get these letters along with vests and identification on the Internet, so suddenly you see people with multiple animals all wearing service animal vests, including chickens.
Hopefully, in the near future there will be a clarification by either state or federal officials regarding emotional support animals.