Originally Published: February 23, 2016 11:37 a.m.
AUGUSTA, Maine - People who falsely pass off their pets as service animals - think of the woman in Wisconsin last year who claimed the right bring her kangaroo into McDonald's - have frustrated people with legitimate needs to such an extent that legislators in several states are considering laws to restore the animals' credibility.
Legislatures in Maine, Virginia, Arizona, Hawaii, New York, and Puerto Rico are considering bills that would either establish such a program or penalize people who fraudulently claim to have service dogs.
In Maine, a task force this month issued a report that says well-meaning federal laws designed to protect people with disabilities have instead opened the door to fraud.
"The abuse and confusion are harming everybody," said Barbara Archer Hirsch, an attorney with the Maine Human Rights Commission and member of the task force. "It's harming the landlords, and it's harming the individuals who need their animals."
Here's the dilemma: Under federal law, no papers are required for service dogs in public places. If people want to sneak their pampered Chihuahua into a restaurant, they can simply lie and say it's a service dog trained to help them with their disability.
Sean McDonough, 51, has a brain injury from a car accident and said he's noticed people are increasingly skeptical that his 5-year-old goldendoodle, Bruno, is a service dog. Bruno is trained to distract McDonough from stress triggers by pressing against him.
Security officers at a courthouse tried to block Bruno at the door recently because of their encounter with a fraudulent service dog, said McDonough, of Lyman, Maine.
"The court people treated me badly because of what other people had done," he said.
Impostors pose a problem for businesses and landlords because they fear legal action if they clamp down, said Donna Hodges, who owns 100 apartment units in central Maine. She recalled a prospective tenant who claimed his rambunctious pit bull was a service dog.
The dog was leaning out a car window and barking at her while its owner waved a framed, official-looking certificate identifying the dog as a service animal. She knew the certificate was a fake, she said, because federal law stipulates that service dogs don't need documentation.
And she knew the dog was a fake, she said, because it was badly behaved.
Federal law applies a different standard for housing. A landlord may ask for a doctor's letter if a person has a disability and needs to live with an animal. Those animals can include service dogs, as well as emotional support animals - pets that provide comfort but lack the training of a service dog.
An emotional support animal can be any kind of pet approved by a doctor, and public establishments do not have to accommodate them. However, businesses must accommodate people with service dogs.
In rare cases, a miniature horse may substitute for a service dog - they can be trained to guide the blind and live longer than dogs. But that's it. The baby kangaroo that a woman carried into the McDonald's, claiming it was a service animal, does not qualify.
People have also asserted service animal status for pigs, cats, rabbits, turkeys, lamas, snakes and turtles, said Jeanine Konopelski, spokeswoman for Canine Companions for Independence, a nonprofit based in California that supplies disabled people with trained service dogs.
In many of those cases, she said, people aren't lying about their animals but misunderstand the difference between a service animal and an emotional support animal.
"The public is confused," she said.
Florida last year took a hard line on the issue, passing a law that makes misrepresenting a service animal a crime punishable by up to 60 days in jail.
Maine's task force recommends that the state launch a public information campaign on the issue. Donald Marean, a Republican lawmaker, also supports creating a voluntary certification program for service dogs.
He said lawmakers could weed out fakers by allowing the disabled to obtain a state-issued card that verifies their animal is a service dog or an official patch that can be affixed to their animal's vest. His proposal is modeled after a Michigan law that went into effect in January.
"I'd like us to do anything we can," Marean said, "to help people get full use of their dogs."