Suss holds an Ivory Ball Python, left, and a
Champagne Ball Python on August 28, 2015 in
Orlando, Fla. Suss raises and breeds ball pythons
as a business and doesn't think that a snake can
be a service animal.
ó A woman and a kangaroo wearing a diaper walk into a
McDonaldís, and the woman says: Heís my service
itís not the setup for a joke. But it may be a sign of
a culture that has increasingly embraced animals as an
extension of family, the kangaroo incident earlier this
year seems to be part of a growing debate. With pigs
flying ó literally ó aboard passenger flights,
monkeys cruising the grocery aisles and large snakes
hanging out in restaurants, the issue of whatís
legitimately a service animal for someone with a
disability can get murky.
lot of people donít understand thereís a distinction
between a therapy animal and a service animal,"
says Dr. Rick Marrinson, owner of Longwood (Fla.)
Veterinary Clinic. "And because of that confusion,
I worry that the people who abuse the law are ruining it
for the people that really need it."
Beaver Dam, Wis., for instance, the woman with the
kangaroo ultimately sparked a call to police, and
officers asked her to leave. But recently in Missouri, a
man with what was thought to be a boa constrictor
casually lunched at a Mexican cafe, claiming the snake
helped him cope with depression.
owner told reporters he thought the patron had a legal
right to his "service snake" and couldnít be
booted out ó despite the fact that other customers
there have been parrots, ferrets and flying squirrels
that allegedly disrupt panic attacks, alert their humans
to impending seizures or allow people to overcome such
disorders as agoraphobia. Security officials at Orlando
International Airport say theyíve screened what was
described as a "service monkey." (Because the
monkey carried no explosives or poison, it passed.)
help those critters provide may ó or may not ó be
real. Regardless, federal law doesnít recognize those
species as having access rights to public spaces and
private businesses, though state law can.
years ago, a campaign to crack down on phony service
dogs, backed by Central Florida groups that train
canines, appealed to the U.S. Department of Justice to
intervene ó to no avail. The proliferation of
official-looking doggy vests bought online, the groups
said, allowed badly behaving pooches to show up in
restaurants, hotels and theme parks, hurting the public
image of their legitimate counterparts.
the Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA, only dogs
and, in some cases, miniature horses can be considered
service animals, and those must perform specific tasks
to aid people with disabilities ó such as guiding the
blind, alerting the hard of hearing, pulling a
wheelchair, retrieving objects or interrupting impulsive
or destructive behaviors.
the law also says a business owner or employee can ask
only two questions of the person: Is the dog (or
miniature horse) a service animal required because of a
disability, and what work or task has the dog been
trained to perform? You canít ask for documentation,
require that the animal demonstrate its service or ask
about the nature of the personís disability.
thereís no universally recognized vest the animals
wear or central agency to certify their training.
that, says Kevin Fritz, a Chicago attorney on ADA public
accommodations, can make matters fuzzy.
time an animal is deemed to have some health benefit,
people become more imaginative in their claims," he
says. "And it becomes even more confusing, because
individual states can have broader definitions than the
federal law in allowing other species to be service
follows the federal law, limiting service animals to
dogs and miniature horses, and Fritz says itís one of
the few states to crack down on abuses, at least for
those who get caught.
this year, legislators made it a second-degree
misdemeanor to misrepresent yourself as disabled in
order to bring your animal into a public facility or
business. Punishment is a $500 fine, up to 60 days in
jail and 30 hours of community service for an
organization that serves people with real disabilities.
wins the approval of guys such as P.J. Suss, a
26-year-old Orange County resident who breeds and sells
snakes, specializing in ball pythons.
since I was a kid, Iíve loved all kinds of
animals," says the former zoology major. "I
feel a kind of kinship with all species. But the last
thing we need is some idiot who brings a snake into a
restaurant. We have enough trouble with our public
as much as Suss enjoys watching TV with one of his more
docile pythons in his lap, he doesnít see snakes in a
have customers who tell me their snakes are Ďjust like
a dog,í but I donít buy it," he says.
"They do have individual personalities, but most of
their brain is devoted to just surviving. You may be
attached to them, but I donít see them becoming
emotionally connected to you."
not to say a snake ó or a range of other creatures ó
canít provide comfort or emotional support. It just
means they donít have the same rights as service
of our relationship with animals is our projection
anyway," says Alan Beck, director of the Center for
the Human-Animal Bond at Purdue University. "You
believe that your golden retriever is listening to you,
and you interpret this as love. We humans are social
animals, and we need social support."
animals ó also called therapy animals or comfort
animals ó do have limited legal standing.
to Pet Partners, a 40-year-old national nonprofit for
owners of therapy animals, such pets must be prescribed
by a licensed mental-health professional for a person
with a mental illness and can only accompany their
owners in public areas with permission from the facilityís
owners or managers. But they can live in apartments,
regardless of a "no pets" policy.
animal has the potential to be therapeutic," says
Marrinson, the veterinarian. "From a neurochemical
standpoint, attachment is attachment. When it comes to
the neurological response of caring for another creature
or getting some attention back, Iím not sure it
matters if itís a dog or a rat or an iguana. We love
them, and we totally grieve for them when they