Arizona Restaurant Association backed HB 2401 is aiming to take some of the guesswork out of who's coming to dinner.
While it hasn't quite been "lions, tigers and bears," it has been "parrots, ferrets and squirrels," according to restaurant owners, who say Arizona's loose definition of service animal is resulting in service animal shams all over the state.
The bill, which passed out of the House Health Committee, would align the definition more closely with the federal definition, which was narrowed in 2011.
The designation of service animal would go to the dogs — and a few miniature horses — that can perform a task to help someone with a disability. This would exclude comfort animals, which aren't allowed at the federal level either, though people are allowed to have an animal that helps with psychiatric conditions, if the animal is trained to perform a task. While a lot of the buzz has been focused on the idea of a miniature horse as a service animal, they are already specified in the federal definition, said Heather Carter (R-LD 15). Miniature horses are up-and-coming service animals and can be an appealing option for people because they live longer than other service animals. They're also housebroken, and range in height from 24 to 34 inches, weighing between 70 and 100 pounds.
As it stands now, any animal in Arizona can be claimed as a service animal and there's very little anyone can say about it.
For whatever reason, said Roxane Nielsen, co-owner of the Prescott Brewing Company, some people seem to believe their dogs have the right to go anywhere.
Under the American Disabilities Act, businesses may only ask if the animal is a service animal and what tasks the animal is trained to perform. Prescott Brewing Company had these questions printed on cards for all of its employees because of the uptick in animal pals coming into the restaurant.
Only being able to ask these questions will still tie business owners' hands even if the bill passes. People can still lie after all. With this bill though, they can only lie about dogs and miniature horses. The hope is that the narrow definition will cut back on the people coming in claiming pets like comfort ferrets. (Which does happen. While researching the bill, this reporter ran into a man with a therapy ferret he'd taken to dinner smuggled in his sweatshirt.)
These awkward conversations can get ugly, from loud threats about taking business elsewhere to instructing pets to do their business in the restaurant.
The intermingling of animals and humans can be disturbing for patrons, said Louis J. Basile, Jr. of Wildflower Bread Company. Basile used the example that his customers don't like to think that animals are eating off plates that are then washed and given to other diners.
No one testified against the bill in commitee, but similar laws in other states have sparked concern from people with more obscure service animals.
Dani Moore, 57, a resident of Hesperia, Calif. convinced her city council to pass an ordinance allowing her two rats to be considered service animals. Hesperia allows any animal to be considered a service animal if they have a doctor's note. Moore said she looked into getting a service dog, but couldn't find one small enough to sit on her shoulder like her rats do. She said that she thinks requiring a dog or a miniature horse could be too costly for many.
"My tiny little rats are certainly much less disruptive than a miniature horse would be," Moore said.
Moore's rats, Milo and Otis, are trained to lick her neck to notify her when she has spasms. This lets her stop the spasms by either stretching or taking medicine. The spasms are so intense, she said, that they've caused her to break a vertebrae in the past.
Rats have been helping Moore with her spasms for 12 years. Moore's daughter was training therapy rats for a school project and noticed that they were sensitive to her mother's spasms. It dawned on her that she could train them and Moore has been using pudding and frosting to teach the rats to lick her when the spasms occur ever since. The rats don't like how the spasms feel and figure out that if they lick her neck they will stop.
While no one spoke out against the bill, Moore said she thinks people who have service animals that don't meet the federal definition will stay silent for fear of having their animal become a target.
Rep. Victoria Steele (D-LD 9) voted for the bill currently in the Arizona Legislature, though she said she did believe it should include other animals since she's a cat person. Joking aside, Steele reminded everyone that while the discussion could easily be considered amusing, service animals perform crucial tasks for many.
As Dani Moore was leaving the council meeting that won her protection under the ordinance, some people heckled her, shouting that they hoped her rats died.
Moore has no patience for those that are abusing the system and making it hard for people like herself. She agrees it is a problem, but doesn't think tightening the answer is the solution.
"I think it's just a knee jerk reaction," Moore said. "The lack of education has caused this adversarial relationship that doesn't need to be there."