The world has never been bigger for service animals. And that’s causing some problems.

Photo Credit: hugefluffy cc
Photo Credit: hugefluffy cc

These days service animals come in every size; furry and scaled. It’s causing a lot of confusion for the institutions whose hands are tied by what they can legally ask of the owners. And though it may seem counterintuitive, being able to ask service animal owners for documentation would help them as well.

As the law stands now, it’s a bit of a patchwork as to how and what animals qualify. The landscape for what a service animal looks like has never been bigger; from miniature pig to miniature horse. Service dogs don’t usually raise eyebrows, but kangaroos? As Kevin Fritz writes for ADA Title III blog, the line is a bit more unclear, such as in the recent case of a Wisconsin woman:

So, while the only dogs and miniature horses must be accommodated as service animals under federal law, other types of animals may be service animals under state law if they are trained to perform work or tasks for an individual with a disability.

Back to our real life scenario: Is the baby Joey a service animal? According to the ADA, definitely not. But in Wisconsin, the answer is less obvious. If it could be proven that the kangaroo performs work or tasks for the woman, and that she has a disability, she may be able to successfully bring a claim for disability discrimination [for kicking her and her Joey out] against the restaurant under state law.

Given that a service animal can help with many disabilities that aren’t visible, like anxiety attacks, seizures, and PTSD, it’s not as simple as eyeballing the possible offenders. Under the ADA, places like schools or businesses frequented by service animals and their owners can often only ask the owner two questions: whether the animal is a service animal, and what tasks it is trained to perform.

But proprietors are not allowed to ask these if it is readily apparent that an animal is performing a task for the person (for example, a guide dog leading its blind owner) nor can they ask any further probing questions (with some exceptions) about the extent of the disability.

Which can be stressful for service animal owners, who don’t have an easy way to prove themselves from the fakers. Which sadly is a growing trend. With airline costs for animals running somewhere between $90-$150, one way, many people have started turning to the internet, where people have been selling fake service vests, complete with forged certification. Since business owners are never sure what an actual service animal looks like, they’re turning that scrutiny on actual service animal owners.

Currently the ADA’s approach to service animals is very loose, hoping to protect service animal owners from too much inquiry. But as Jeffrey Polsky of California Employment Law says, it’s time for there to be some way to alleviate concerns and boot fakers:

Now Phyllis Cheng, who directs California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing, has joined the chorus of those saying that there should be a way to verify that an animal provides legitimate assistance with a disability. Is she saying this because she’s sympathetic to the burdens placed on businesses? No, the concern is that people who legitimately need service animals are being met with suspicion and that makes them uncomfortable.

Whatever the reason, the law needs to change. If someone needs a service animal, they should absolutely get to use one. But everyone acknowledges that the law’s being abused.

Canada has already started trying to crack down on faux service animals, by proposing a government-run database to register service animals. But the U.S.’s laws remain murky at best, with everyone from businesses to landlords unclear on how much control they have over misbehaving pets. And since they can’t just squirt the fraudster owners with a water bottle, it’s time the service animal conundrum got cleared up.