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Originally published October 19, 2009 at 12:07 AM | Page modified October 20, 2009 at 3:18 PM

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Debate grows over what defines a service animal

A service snake's days as a seizure-alert animal may end as the Department of Justice once again tries to define what animals provide a legitimate service to the disabled.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Snake as a service animal

When Daniel Greene has a seizure coming on, he says a hug can help stop it.

As he walks through the small Agate Store near Shelton, a nearly 5-foot boa constrictor coiled around his neck, even a customer walking within a foot of him doesn't notice the snake. It's a different matter, however, at Burger King.

Greene, 46, approaches the counter, but the manager orders him and his snake off the property before he can place his order. Redrock the boa, Greene says angrily, is a service snake who alerts him to pending seizures by giving him a hug. The snake had been seeking the dark confines of Green's coat sleeve. At that moment, Redrock pulls his head out and stiffens.

"He's alerting me," Greene says. "I need to sit down." But instead, he walks across the parking lot toward a pet store, speaking comforting words to the snake and kissing its head.

As a service snake, Redrock is protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). But the Department of Justice (DOJ) again is trying to define service animals, and Redrock may lose his status, which at least in theory allows him to accompany Greene into stores, restaurants, theaters and other public places.

The DOJ was overwhelmed with thousands of comments about service animals last year when it announced plans to modify the definition to exclude wild animals, including reptiles, rabbits, farm animals, amphibians, ferrets and rodents. The guidelines also would have eliminated as service animals those whose sole function is to provide emotional support, comfort, therapy, companionship, therapeutic benefits, or to promote emotional well-being.

The outcry was intense — with some 4,500 messages, more response than has been received for any other DOJ topic in recent memory, spokesman Alejandro Miyar said. After President Obama took office, he asked that all proposed rule-making stop until new DOJ appointees could review the proposals. The new assistant attorney general for civil rights came on board Oct. 7.

"We are now in the process of reviewing the proposed ADA regulations and the public comments that the department received," Miyar said. "We anticipate that we will issue final ADA rules this year."

"Just doing his job"

Greene plans to be among those fighting for his right to public access for his service snake. Five months ago, he said, he had grand-mal seizures more frequently than he does now. He said Redrock's slight hugs at the first sign of a pending seizure allow him to remove himself from a stressful setting, take medication or do whatever he needs to either avoid a seizure, or find a place where he is less likely to be hurt if he has one.

Greene said he can't explain how the snake knows he has a seizure coming on, but he theorized it might be a slight drop in temperature. Reptile experts are reluctant to give an opinion, but even dogs' ability to predict seizures has been met with considerable skepticism.

Greene got Redrock as a pet two years ago and said he was carrying it around his neck when he noticed that the snake would sniffen when Greene was experiencing seizure symptoms. He said he trained the snake by taking it into public settings.

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Greene said the seizures return unchecked when Redrock is not draped around his neck — such as at night when the snake is in its cage. He admitted others in public are uncomfortable when they see the snake, and that even his doctor won't allow it in her office.

Greene said he doesn't mind leaving a store if asked politely, but that he takes umbrage when anyone suggests Redrock is anything but a service animal deserving accommodation under the law.

"The animal is just doing his job. He's not hurting anyone," he said. "He's not strangling me."

He said, however, that it's important "to be stronger than the snake" in case he needs to pull Redrock off.

Controversy over access

The public long has become accustomed to guide dogs for the blind, first used in 1929. But when the use of dogs for other types of help for the disabled — such as alerting deaf people to sounds, pulling wheelchairs and helping with mobility issues — became common after enactment of the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act, controversy over access came with it.

The controversy intensified as other species entered the service-animal ring, and as "emotional-support animals," those designated to help someone suffering from some form of mental illness, have become common.

Courts and human-rights commissions from East Coast to West Coast have dealt with access complaints pertaining to a service iguana, ferrets, a duck, goats and miniature horses, to name a few. The species are so varied that the Department of Transportation (DOT) mentioned some by name: spiders, for example, in regulations banning them from flying in aircraft cabins.

That the DOT mentioned spiders by name "means somewhere along the line, somebody brought ... a service spider on the aircraft," wrote Candy Harrington, editor of Emerging Horizons, a magazine for disabled travelers, in her blog. "I have to say in all honesty, that if the person seated next to me whipped out a service spider, I would be teaching that arachnid to play dead ... faster than the airlines can raise their excess-baggage charges."

However, "I know a lot of people with service animals, and they really do provide a service. In most cases they allow folks to be more independent. But when you throw in the unusual or exotic service animals, that tends to discredit folks with standard service animals. They have a hard enough time gaining access to public accommodations, and it's even harder when business owners read about the unusual service animals," Harrington said. Ginger Luke owns the Rickshaw Restaurant in North Seattle and founded Ginger's Pet Rescue, which places abandoned dogs, including some who become service animals. She's skeptical about nontraditional service animals.

One day she found a customer dining with a cat.

"The cat was just sitting there on the table like a centerpiece, watching the woman eat chow mein," Luke said. While stunned, she noted the cat was well-behaved. She told the woman that cats weren't allowed in the restaurant, and was told the cat was a service animal. Fearing she might be accused of discrimination, Luke let the cat stay, but wondered what it would do when the noise from karaoke started.

No training required

Business owners can't deny access, ask the nature of the person's disability or demand extra money to accommodate the animal, the DOJ says.

The Delta Society, a Bellevue-based information agency on service animals, says businesses legally can ask several questions before allowing admission to someone with a service animal: What does this animal do to help you with your disability? And how was this animal trained?

The existing law has no standards of service-animal training, requires no animal identification or certification and doesn't define what a service animal can be. But if businesses and public agencies fail to accommodate a disabled person's service animal, they sometimes are sued.

Having some form of identification — available for purchase through a number of Web sites or by creating some yourself, which Greene did regarding his snake — often makes access easier, experts say.

"We have a number of individuals who have service animals" on board the passenger decks of ferries, said Marta Coursey, spokesman for the Washington State Ferries. The service animals vary from dogs to ferrets, birds and a hedgehog. With the exception of the staff's need to occasionally soothe another travelers' fears, those passengers with unusual service animals generally do fine, she said.

JoAnn Turnbull of the Delta Society says nontraditional service animals do have their place. One deaf woman had a service goat to alert her to sounds when she was outdoors and to help brace her if she was on the ground and needed to get up. But the woman had no desire to take the goat to dinner, Turnbull said.

"A service animal should be almost invisible," Turnbull said. "If you are eating at a restaurant, you shouldn't know a service animal is there."

As for Greene, he said he needs Redrock wherever he goes. As he walked across a Shelton parking lot, still fuming over his ejection from Burger King, he stopped to talk with a group of teens, asking them to avoid the restaurant because it discriminated against him and his snake.

"May I ask what kind of service the snake does for you?" one teen asked, keeping his distance as Redrock coiled and uncoiled around Greene's neck.

As he does again and again for dozens of skeptics, Greene began to explain.

Nancy Bartley: 206-464-8522 or nbartley@seattletimes.com

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