Triangle Troubleshooter

Troubleshooter: Feds redefine service animals

Staff WriterMay 4, 2011 

Robert Betts suffers from severe depression.

A few years ago, a friend suggested he get pet rabbits to help him with his social phobias.

Now he has Thumper and Pegasus, and he pushes them in a baby stroller all over downtown Raleigh, where Betts lives. He has a note from his psychiatrist stating his therapeutic needs for the bunnies and has identification cards for them, he said.

But it may be harder for Betts to get into public places now that the federal government has limited the definition of service animal. Now, dogs or miniature horses trained to perform certain tasks for their disabled owner count as service animals.

The U.S. Department of Justice issued the new definition in July, and it took effect in March, said Philip Woodward, access specialist with the N.C. Vocational Rehabilitation Services, who is in charge of registering service animals for people with disabilities in the state.

The old definition did include any animal, Woodward said.

But plenty of people were taking advantage of that, bringing their "service" snakes, monkeys and pigs to public places like restaurants - not really where you want to see a snake sitting on the table.

"Businesses worried about people bringing snakes and causing safety concerns," Woodward said.

Nicole Sickles got a therapeutic/service miniature pot-belly pig after she was diagnosed with a brain tumor. The pig, named Blue, went everywhere with her.

"I'd take him anywhere because I had a doctor's note saying he helped me with my disability," Sickles said.

Then, her son, Adam, was born and diagnosed with Down syndrome, and Blue became his service animal, she said.

"All of the Down groups have said animals are great therapy," she said, adding that pigs can do everything a service dog is trained to do, such as open a purse, fetch and open the refrigerator.

I wrote about Blue, who slept with Adam, after he was killed in February by an off-duty Wake County Sheriff's Deputy, who mistook him for a feral pig.

If Sickles wants to get her son a new service animal that he can take to public places, she'll have to get a dog or miniature horse and not a pig.

Shortly before the new definition went into effect, Betts got a taste of what life could be like under the new amendment after he and the bunnies visited the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences in downtown Raleigh.

The staff denied him access because the rabbits do not count as service animals, he said he was told - even though he and the bunnies were allowed into the same museum six months ago, he said.

Betts is outraged about the new rule. He's worried that his access to downtown will now be limited.

"I think it's harmful to a lot of people," he said, adding public places are not required to deny access to his service rabbits - they just have the choice to do so now.

Betts has contacted elected officials to express his opposition to the new definition of service animals.

Though not trained to perform specific tasks, Thumper and Pegasus help him get out of his apartment because they enable him to interact with people, he said.

"Otherwise, I'm scared to death of people; otherwise, I'd be a shut-in," Betts said. "Since I've gotten the rabbits, they've increased my functioning."

The rabbits are trained to stay in the stroller, he said, and they don't pose any danger to people unless you smell like a carrot.

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