Dani Moore uses a rat perched on her shoulder as a service animal to alert her to spasms from a disabling condition. Daniel Greene's service animal is a snake wrapped around his neck to help him predict epileptic seizures.
But these creatures and many others are no longer acceptable as service animals under new federal guidelines issued March 15 by the U.S. Department of Justice for the Americans with Disabilities Act. The new recommendations limit service animals to dogs and housebroken miniature horses.
The new guidelines are not binding to states, municipalities and other agencies, which are free to adopt the policy or to make their own. But individuals who rely on other types of animals to help them manage physical disabilities and conditions are worried.
The law used to say a service animal could be any animal trained to do a task for an individual, said Don Brandon, director of the Northwest Americans with Disabilities Act Center in Seattle. The new policy allowing only dogs and the miniature horses "excludes automatically yard animals, rodents, spiders, snakes, monkeys and cats," Brandon said.
Service animals also exclude animals that provide emotional support or comfort, he said.
The DOJ decided to revise its service animal regulation because of comments from businesses, state and local governments and individuals with disabilities, including several who use service animals, department spokesman Xochitl Hinojosa said.
People were putting vests on pocket pets and calling them service animals, Brandon said. "Changes were needed."
When Moore, 55, heard about the new law, she went to the City Council in Hesperia, Calif., where she lives, and asked lawmakers to enact an ordinance that would allow her to continue using rats to alert her to spasms she can't feel because of spinal nerve injuries, fibromyalgia and osteoporosis of the spine. When her rat feels Moore shaking, he starts licking her neck, she explained, so she can take medication and stop the spasms before they start.
She uses pudding to train her rats, she said.
Despite opposition from one councilman who cited health concerns and the risk of litigation, the council adopted an ordinance keeping the old definition and allowing Moore to continue using her rats as service animals. It goes into effect in this high desert community 90 miles northeast of Los Angeles on April 14.
Greene, 47, went to Olympia, Wash., to testify against a proposed revision of that state's law so it would match the ADA change.
He wears his 10-pound red tail boa, Red Rock, draped around his neck. Red Rock will alert Greene, who stands 6-foot-6, to an epileptic seizure so he can sit down and reduce the chance of injury. Once down, he said he uses meditation to try to control his body and eliminate the seizure.
He doesn't know how or why his snake knows what to do, he said. "He's not a miracle cure, he's an early warning system," he said. Greene spent about a year getting the snake used to people, he said.
The Legislature hasn't ruled yet and he hopes the measure to adopt the new policy dies without a vote.
Federal agencies are not in sync on animals. The U.S. Department of Transportation and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development allow service animals of all types as well as emotional support animals, Brandon said, although some airlines may require advance notice, a doctor's note and some other documentation.
TriMet, Oregon's largest transit agency, quickly voted to adopt the new ADA definition. But the state Department of Transportation asked the agency to withhold implementation to allow time for public outreach, TriMet communications director Mary Fetsch said.
"We are maintaining our current service animal definition, which is any guide dog, signal dog or other animal individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of a person with a disability," she said.
"The disability community is one in five people and the vast majority have hidden disabilities. You don't know that they have a chronic illness or a heart problem or a lung problem or an orthopedic problem or epilepsy or a psychiatric disability. There is a huge amount of ignorance about the ways people cope so they can be functioning members of society," said Susan Mizner, director of the San Francisco Mayor's Office on Disability.
The Department of Justice posted its proposed rules in 2008 and the adopted version was not much different, so people have had time to react, said Marilyn Golden, a policy analyst for the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund (DREDF).
"A number of people with disabilities are concerned about it. Our organization did support a more expansive approach, which is not what the Department of Justice chose to take," she added.
Moore has been using rats for 10 years. She keeps a pair, alternating them every 90 minutes. While one is working, the other is kept in a cloth and mesh cage. While working, they wear a soft leather harness and leash, which she clips to her clothing. The leash bears a tag that advises they are working, so please don't touch.
Moore says service dogs are not an option because they're too heavy and restless to sit on her shoulder. She says the rats are non-threatening, are bathed twice a week and never touch the ground. "Some people don't even notice them," Moore said. But she understands that some people have rat phobias, and she is happy to explain their purpose to anyone who will listen. A 20-minute mall trip often turns into a three-hour excursion, she said.
Mizner, who has been working with the disabled for 19 years, said some nontraditional animals do what no others can.
A person might be allergic to fur or feathers, so a nonpoisonous snake would be a reasonable alternative, she said. "Chimps are being trained to do fairly significant motor skills. Birds are intelligent, stay on your shoulder and if you drop something, they can fly down, pick it up and hand it back."
A trained rat probably would have had a good case in California, Mizner said, because the state Department of Fair Employment and Housing abides by the Unruh Act, which protects controlled service and support animals helping a disabled person in places where the public is allowed.