AZ Capitol Times
By Hank Stephenson

Next time you’re dining in a fine restaurant, you may find yourself breaking bread next to a miniature horse – but at least it won’t be a ferret, squirrel or snake.

The House on Wednesday took the first step towards allowing miniature horses to enter restaurants when the Health Committee unanimously approved a measure that would classify miniature horses as service animals.

And although at first blush the measure may sound like another zany idea from the Arizona Legislature, in reality the bill would bring state laws up to speed with the latest version of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which defines service animals as only trained dogs and miniature horses.

Currently, state law defines service animals as dogs “or other animals” that are trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability.

That ambiguous definition of service animal has lead to all sorts of problems, said Sherry Gillespie of the Arizona Restaurant Association.

Gillespie told the committee that HB2401, sponsored by Republican Rep. Heather Carter of Cave Creek, would solve a major quandary for restaurants: an increase in the number of people abusing the service animals law by bringing pets to dine with them that are not really service animals.

“Restaurants try to make every single accommodation for people dining there, but those accommodations must be reasonable,” she said.

Roxanne Nielson, owner of Prescott Brewing Company, has seen her fair share of people requesting unreasonable accommodations at her restaurant.

“We’ve had problems with the idea of service animals versus pets for many, many years,” she said. “I can’t say that we’ve had lions and tigers and bears, but we’ve had parrots and ferrets and squirrels, I kid you not. People coming in with birds on their shoulder, ferrets in little slings, squirrels in slings, dogs in purses, dogs in men’s briefcases.”

Nielsen said she used to look the other way as long as the animals weren’t causing problems, but in recent years people have started thinking of their pets as family members and expecting them to be able to go anywhere a human goes, and the trend has become too large to ignore.

About six months ago, the problem became so rampant that Nielsen made laminated cards for each of her employees to carry with them that list the ADA rules and requirements for service animals.

According to the federal law, business owners are only allowed to ask customers if their service animal is required because of a disability and what tasks the animal has been trained to perform. They cannot ask for special identification or medical documentation for the animal, or to demonstrate the animal’s ability to perform service work or tasks. Nor can they ask about the person’s disability. Most state and local government, business, nonprofits must allow service animals, though there are some exceptions.

The bill does not prohibit restaurants or businesses from allowing other animals inside, if they wish and it doesn’t infringe on other regulations.

The ADA added miniature horses to the two-species list of approved service animals in May, 2011. Miniature horses range between 24 to 34 inches in height and weigh between 70 and 100 pounds, and live much longer than dogs, which is important because fully trained service animals are expensive.

Carter, who sponsored the bill, chairs the House Health Committee and also rides show horses. She said miniature horses can be trained to do almost all the tasks dogs can do, and can make a big difference in the life of a disabled person.

“They live longer than dogs, they can be trained to do different tasks than dogs can be trained to do, and just to answer the question that everyone has been asking in the halls, for the record, they’re fully potty trained,” she said.

Service animals can be trained to perform work or tasks for people who are blind or deaf; they can pull wheelchairs, alert and protect a person having a seizure, remind a person with mental illness to take prescribed medications, calm a person with post traumatic stress disorder during an anxiety attack and perform other duties. Animals whose sole function is to provide comfort or emotional support do not qualify as service animals under the ADA.

Before voting for the measure, Democratic Rep. Victoria Steele of Tucson said she believes other animals that can also perform those duties should be considered service animals, but this bill is a step in the right direction.

“Even though it might sound amusing, these service animals do offer a valid service,” she said. “And while I personally think that list should be expanded beyond horses and dogs – I’m a cat person – I think this is (an important bill).”