ralph lauren black watch Assistance Animals Now Come in All Shapes and Sizes
ON HALLOWEEN NIGHT IN A SUBURB of Albany, a group of children dressed as vampires and witches ran past a middle aged woman in plain clothes. She gripped a leather harness like the kind used for Seeing Eye dogs which was attached to a small, fuzzy black and white horse barely tall enough to reach the woman’s hip.
“Cool costume,” one of the kids said, nodding toward her.
There are no sidewalks in Edie’s neighborhood, so Panda led her along the street’s edge, maneuvering around drainage ditches, mailboxes and bags of raked leaves. At one point, Panda paused, waited for a car to pass, then veered into the road to avoid a group of children running toward them swinging glow sticks. She led Edie onto a lawn so she wouldn’t hit her head on the side mirror of a parked van, then to a traffic pole at a busy intersection, where she stopped and tapped her hoof. “Find the button,” Edie said. Panda raised her head inches from the pole so Edie could run her hand along Panda’s nose to find and press the “walk” signal button.
Edie isn’t the only blind person who uses a guide horse instead of a dog there’s actually a Guide Horse Foundation that’s been around nearly a decade. The obvious question is, Why? In fact, Edie says, there are many reasons: miniature horses are mild mannered, trainable and less threatening than large dogs. They’re naturally cautious and have exceptional vision, with eyes set far apart for nearly 360 degree range. Plus, they’re herd animals, so they instinctively synchronize their movements with others. But the biggest reason is age: miniature horses can live and work for more than 30 years. In that time, a blind person typically goes through five to seven guide dogs. That can be draining both emotionally and economically, because each one can cost up to $60,000 to breed, train and place in a home.
Edie has nothing against service dogs she has had several. One worked beautifully. Two didn’t they dragged her across lawns chasing cats and squirrels, even pulled her into the street chasing dogs in passing cars. Edie doesn’t worry about those sorts of things with Panda because miniature horses are less aggressive. Still, she says, “I would never say to a blind person, ‘Run out and get yourself a guide horse,’ because there are definite limitations.” They eat far more often than dogs, and go to the bathroom about every two or three hours. (Yes, Panda is house trained.) Plus, they can’t curl up in small places, which makes going to the movies or riding in airplanes a challenge. (When miniature horses fly, they stand in first class or bulkhead because they don’t fit in standard coach.)
What’s most striking about Edie and Panda is that after the initial shock of seeing a horse walk into a cafe, or ride in a car, watching them work together makes the idea of guide miniature horses seem utterly logical. Even normal. So normal, in fact, that people often find it hard to believe that the United States government is considering a proposal that would force Edie and many others like her to stop using their service animals. But that’s precisely what’s happening, because a growing number of people believe the world of service animals has gotten out of control: first it was guide dogs for the blind; now it’s monkeys for quadriplegia and agoraphobia, guide miniature horses, a goat for muscular dystrophy, a parrot for psychosis and any number of animals for anxiety, including cats, ferrets, pigs, at least one iguana and a duck.
Some people enjoy running into an occasional primate or farm animal while shopping. Many others don’t. This has resulted in a growing debate over how to handle these animals, as well as widespread suspicion that people are abusing the law to get special privileges for their pets. Increasingly, business owners, landlords and city officials are challenging the legitimacy of noncanine service animals and refusing to accommodate them. Animal owners are responding with lawsuits and complaints to the Department of Justice. This August, the Arizona Game and Fish Department ordered a woman to get rid of her chimpanzee, claiming that she brought it into the state illegally she disputed this and sued for discrimination, arguing that it was a diabetes assistance chimp trained to fetch sugar during hypoglycemic episodes.
Cases like this are raising questions about where to draw the lines when it comes to the needs and rights of people who rely on these animals, of businesses obligated by law to accommodate them and of everyday civilians who because of health and safety concerns or just general discomfort don’t want monkeys or ducks walking the aisles of their grocery stores.
A few months ago, in a cafe in St. Louis, I met a man named Jim Eggers, who uses an assistance parrot, Sadie, to help control his psychotic tendencies. Eggers looks like a man who has been fighting his whole life. He is muscular, with a buzz cut, several knocked out teeth and many scars, including one that runs ear to chin from surgery to repair a broken jaw. Eggers avoids eye contact in public he walks fast down streets and through stores staring at the ground, jaw clenched. “I have bipolar disorder with psychotic tendencies,” he told me as he sucked down a green apple smoothie. “Homicidal feelings too.”
Eggers’s condition has landed him in court several times: a disturbing the peace charge for pouring scalding coffee onto a man under his apartment window who annoyed him; one year probation for threatening to kill the archbishop of St. Louis because of news reports about church money and molestations by priests in other cities (which the archbishop had nothing to do with). In describing his condition,
Eggers says it’s like when the Incredible Hulk changes from man to monster. His vision blurs, his body tingles and he can barely hear. According to his friend Larry Gower, who often serves as a public liaison for him, in those moments, Eggers gets extremely loud. They both agree that Sadie is one of the few things keeping Eggers from snapping.
Sadie rides around town on Eggers’s back in a bright purple backpack specially designed to hold her cage. Calm down, Jim. You’re all right, Jim. I’m here, Jim.” She somehow senses when he is getting agitated before he even knows it’s happening. “I still go off on people sometimes, but she makes sure it never escalates into a big problem,” he told me, grinning bashfully at Sadie. “Now when people make me mad I just give them the bird,” he said, pulling up his sleeve and flexing his biceps, which is covered with a large tattoo of Sadie.
Soon after what he calls “the Archbishop Incident,” Eggers got Sadie from a friend who owned a pet store. She’d been neglected by a previous owner and had torn out all her feathers, so Eggers nursed her back to health. He didn’t initially train her as a service animal, he says; she did that herself. He soon realized that she calmed him better than he calmed himself. So he started rewarding her each time it happened. And he has had only one incident since: he dented a woman’s car with his fist on a day when he’d left Sadie at home.
Eggers didn’t think to use any special language to describe Sadie until he tried to take her on a bus and the driver said that only “service animals” were allowed. Eggers went home and looked up “service animal” online. “That’s when it all fell into place,” he told me. He learned that psychiatric service animals help their owners cope with things like medication side effects. Eggers takes heavy doses of antipsychotics that leave him in a fog most of the day. So he trained Sadie to alert him with a loud ringing noise if someone calls, or to yell “WHO’S THERE?” when anyone knocks on the door. If the fire alarm goes off, Sadie goes off. If Eggers leaves the faucet running, Sadie makes sounds like a waterfall until he turns it off.
Eggers got a service animal bus pass for Sadie and began taking her everywhere. (He has special insulated cage panels to keep her warm in winter.) For years, few people objected. Then, in the spring of 2007, Eggers went to have his teeth cleaned at the St. Louis Community College dental hygiene school, and officials there told him that Sadie wasn’t allowed inside because she posed a risk to public health and wasn’t really a service animal. “All I can say is, they were lucky I had Sadie with me to keep me calm when they said that,” Eggers told me. Its conclusion: the school wrongfully denied access based on public health concerns without assessing whether Sadie actually posed a risk. (Several top epidemiologists I interviewed for this article said that, on the whole, birds and miniature horses pose no more risk to human health than service dogs do.)
But Eggers is still fighting that fight. But that didn’t change the school’s conclusion: it labeled Sadie a mere “therapy animal.” If that label sticks, it will mean that Sadie isn’t covered by the federal law that protects service animals and guarantees them access to public places.
Stories like Eggers’s involve two questions that are often mistakenly treated as one. The first: What qualifies as a service animal? The second: Can any species be eligible?
There are two categories of animals that help people. “Therapy animals” (also known as “comfort animals”) have been used for decades in hospitals and homes for the elderly or disabled. Their job is essentially to be themselves to let humans pet and play with them, which calms people, lowers their blood pressure and makes them feel better. There are also therapy horses, which people ride to help with balance and muscle building. defines as “any guide dog, signal dog or other animal individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including, but not limited to, guiding individuals with impaired vision, alerting individuals with impaired hearing to intruders or sounds, providing minimal protection or rescue work, pulling a wheelchair or fetching dropped items.”
Since the 1920s, when guide dogs first started working with blind World War I veterans, service animals have been trained to do everything from helping people balance on stairs to opening doors to calling 911. In the early ’80s, small capuchin monkeys started helping quadriplegics with basic day to day functions like eating and drinking, and there was no question about whether they counted as service animals. Things got more complicated in the ’90s, when “psychiatric service animals” started fetching pills and water, alerting owners to panic attacks and helping autistic children socialize.
The line between therapy animals and psychiatric service animals has always been blurry, because it usually comes down to varying definitions of the words “task” and “work” and whether something like actively soothing a person qualifies. That line got blurrier in 2003, when the Department of Transportation revised its internal policies regarding service animals on airplanes. The only thing required for a pet to fly with its owner instead of riding as cargo was documentation (like a letter from a doctor) saying the person needed emotional support from an animal.
Soon, a trend emerged: people with no visible disabilities were bringing what a New York Times article called “a veritable Noah’s Ark of support animals” into businesses, claiming that they were service animals. Business owners and their employees often couldn’t distinguish the genuine from the bogus. makes it illegal to ask what disorder an animal helps with. You also can’t ask for proof that a person is disabled or a demonstration of an animal’s “tasks.” There is no certification process for service animals (though there are Web sites where anyone can buy an official looking card that says they have a certified service animal, no documentation required). The only questions businesses can ask are “Is that a trained service animal?” and “What task is it trained to do?”
If the person answers yes to the first and claims that the animal is, say, trained to alert him or her to a specific condition (like a seizure), additional questioning could end in a lawsuit. And in many cases, according to Joan Esnayra, founder of the Psychiatric Service Dog Society, the outcome of those lawsuits depends largely on the words people use to describe their animals. “If you say ‘comfort,’ ‘need’ or ‘emotional support,’ you’re out the door,” she says. “If you talk about what your animal does in terms of ‘tasks’ and ‘work,’ then you stand a chance.”
Case in point: When the dental school questioned Eggers about whether Sadie was a service animal, he said she kept him “calm.” If he had said that she alerts him to things like attacks and doorbells, his case might have been stronger.
According to Jennifer Mathis, an attorney at the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, “A lot of times when people with legitimate service animals lose these cases,
it has to do with the fact that they don’t explain their service animals well.”