ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — A woman and a kangaroo wearing a diaper walk into a McDonald's, and the woman says: He's my service kangaroo.
No, it's not the setup for a joke. But it may be a sign of the times.
In a culture that has increasingly embraced animals as an extension of family, the kangaroo incident earlier this year seems to be part of a growing problem. With pigs flying — literally — aboard passenger flights, monkeys cruising the grocery aisles and large snakes hanging out in restaurants, the issue of what's legitimately a service animal for someone with a disability can get murky.
"A lot of people don't understand there's a distinction between a therapy animal and a service animal," says Dr. Rick Marrinson, owner of Longwood Veterinary Clinic. "And because of that confusion, I worry that the people who abuse the law are ruining it for the people that really need it."
In Beaver Dam, Wis., for instance, the woman with the kangaroo ultimately sparked a call to police, and officers asked her to leave. But two weeks ago in Missouri, a man with what was thought to be a boa constrictor casually lunched at a Mexican cafe, claiming the snake helped him cope with depression.
The owner told reporters he thought the patron had a legal right to his "service snake" and couldn't be booted out — despite the fact that other customers hurriedly left.
Elsewhere there have been parrots, ferrets and flying squirrels that allegedly disrupt panic attacks, alert their humans to impending seizures or allow people to overcome such disorders as agoraphobia. Security officials at Orlando International Airport say they've screened what was described as a "service monkey." (Because the monkey carried no explosives or poison, it passed.)
The help those critters provide may — or may not — be real. Regardless, federal law doesn't recognize those species as having access rights to public spaces and private businesses, though state law can.
Two years ago, a campaign to crack down on phony service dogs, backed by Central Florida groups that train canines, appealed to the U.S. Department of Justice to intervene — to no avail. The proliferation of official-looking doggy vests bought online, the groups said, allowed badly behaving pooches to show up in restaurants, hotels and theme parks, hurting the public image of their legitimate counterparts.
Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA, only dogs and in some cases miniature horses can be considered service animals, and those must perform specific tasks to aid people with disabilities — such as guiding the blind, alerting the hard of hearing, pulling a wheelchair, retrieving objects or interrupting impulsive or destructive behaviors.
But the law also says a business owner or employee can ask only two questions of the person: Is the dog (or miniature horse) a service animal required because of a disability, and what work or task has the dog been trained to perform? You can't ask for documentation, require that the animal demonstrate its service or ask about the nature of the person's disability.
Further, there's no universally recognized vest the animals wear nor central agency to certify their training.
And that, says Kevin Fritz, a Chicago attorney on ADA public accommodations, can make matters fuzzy.
"Every time an animal is deemed to have some health benefit, people become more imaginative in their claims," he says. "And it becomes even more confusing because individual states can have broader definitions than the federal law in allowing other species to be service animals."
Florida follows the federal law, limiting service animals to dogs and miniature horses, and Fritz says it's one of the few states to crack down on abuses, at least for those who get caught.
Earlier this year, legislators made it a second-degree misdemeanor to misrepresent yourself as disabled in order to bring your animal into a public facility or business. Punishment is a $500 fine, up to 60 days in jail and 30 hours of community service for an organization that serves people with real disabilities.
That wins the approval of guys such as P.J. Suss, a 26-year-old Orange County resident who breeds and sells snakes, specializing in ball pythons.
"Ever since I was a kid, I've loved all kinds of animals," says the former zoology major. "I feel a kind of kinship with all species. But the last thing we need is some idiot who brings a snake into a restaurant. We have enough trouble with our public image."
And as much as Suss enjoys watching TV with one of his more docile pythons in his lap, he doesn't see snakes in a service role.
"I have customers who tell me their snakes are 'just like a dog,' but I don't buy it," he says. "They do have individual personalities, but most of their brain is devoted to just surviving. You may be attached to them, but I don't see them becoming emotionally connected to you."
That's not to say a snake — or a range of other creatures — can't provide comfort or emotional support. It just means they don't have the same rights as service animals.
"Much of our relationship with animals is our projection anyway," says Alan Beck, director of the Center for the Human-Animal Bond at Purdue University. "You believe that your golden retriever is listening to you, and you interpret this as love. We humans are social animals, and we need social support."
Emotional-support animals — also called therapy animals or comfort animals — do have limited legal standing.
According to Pet Partners, a 40-year-old national nonprofit for owners of therapy animals, such pets must be prescribed by a licensed mental-health professional for a person with a mental illness and can only accompany their owners in public areas with permission from the facility's owners or managers. But they can live in apartments, regardless of a "no pets" policy.
"Any animal has the potential to be therapeutic," says Marrinson, the veterinarian. "From a neurochemical standpoint, attachment is attachment. When it comes to the neurological response of caring for another creature or getting some attention back, I'm not sure it matters if it's a dog or a rat or an iguana. We love them, and we totally grieve for them when they die."
Information from: Orlando Sentinel, http://www.orlandosentinel.com/