A seeing-eye ferret? Now ‘service animal’ defined more narrowly

The landmark Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990 stated very clearly that people with disabilities had a right to take their service animals along with them wherever they went.

But in retrospect, the law wasn’t as clear as it might have been on one little point: What exactly is a service animal?

The law termed it “any animal individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of a person with a disability” — but here was the rub: That seemed to imply that an elephant, just for instance, could make an excellent service animal.

Elephants are very smart. And strong. They can carry things for people and give them rides. Yet surely the lawmakers didn’t intend for people to have service elephants they could go shopping with in grocery stores and travel with on planes.

Fortunately, in the last 20 years, no one ever seems to have claimed to have a service elephant. On the other hand, plenty of people have claimed to have service cats and rats and parrots and ferrets and llamas and iguanas and at least one snake (yes, really, a boa constrictor). And they’ve tried to take these service animals along with them everywhere — the way the law assured them they could — including into places where other people told them they were very out of place.

Impasse ensued. Confusion reigned. Until this March, when the government issued a new definition:


“Service animal means any dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability. Other species of animals, whether wild or domestic, trained or untrained, are not service animals for the purposes of this definition.” (The new rules make an exception for only miniature horses — and then only under certain conditions.)

In other words, a service animal is a service animal is a service dog.

—Karen Ravn