IMAGE: Ward Jenkins
Taylor Nussbaum has a bone to pick with the Pearl District Safeway on Northwest Lovejoy Street.
Nussbaum, who lives in the Pearl District, describes herself as “appalled” to find shoppers in that store accompanied by what she says are their meat-sniffing and food-licking dogs.
In a city that rates well nationally for dog-friendliness but also has battled over leash laws in city parks, it’s perhaps not unusual there’s a conflict in Portland over service animals in stores.
But in this case, Vance Bybee, administrator of food safety at Oregon’s Department of Agriculture, says Safeway—just like every other retail food market in the country—is on a short leash when it comes to excluding pets deemed by their human companions to be service animals.
That’s because the 19-year-old federal Americans with Disabilities Act loosely defines a service animal as “any guide dog, signal dog, or other animal individually trained to provide assistance to an individual with a disability.”
And animals are considered service animals under the ADA regardless of whether they have been licensed or certified for that function by a state or local government.
So even if the store suspects the animal is only a pet, there is nothing the store can do if its companion says it’s a service animal, Bybee says.
“They are not required to have a collar or vest or license,” Bybee says. “All the owner has to do is state that the animal is a service animal.”
A manager at the Pearl District Safeway refused to comment. A customer-service rep for Safeway told Nussbaum in an email the store is following ADA guidelines, and “the nature of the person’s disability is a private matter and employees are not entitled to inquire for details.”
And an animal doesn’t have to be a dog to qualify. It could be a cat, monkey, bird or any animal that can do something the person cannot. The only two questions stores can legally ask are, “Is that a service animal?” and, “What service does the animal perform?” The establishment may not ask the person to make the animal demonstrate the service, and it may not ask what the person’s disability is.
That leaves any Paris Hilton wannabe with a tiny pug free to wander the store shelves, so long as she’s smart enough to say it’s a service dog when asked, no matter how many shoppers complain.
Bybee says the state ag department doesn’t track the number of complaints about service animals in stores, but can safely conclude: “The No. 1 complaint we receive is about animals in retail markets.”
Service animals also have upset some TriMet riders, says TriMet spokewsoman Bekki Witt.
“We get, on average, one customer complaint a week regarding animals on [the] bus or MAX,” Witt says. “Many of these calls have to do with pit bull dogs and their legitimacy as a service animal. The service animal issue can be challenging, as we can’t discriminate based on the breed of a dog nor can we question a person’s need for a service animal.”
And what of the health issue in stores? Or as Nussbaum writes, “Can you imagine putting your groceries in a cart after a dog—one that may not have all their vaccinations, has not had a bath in a month or just rolled in doggie feces at the dog park?”
“Dogs, like people, carry germs with them,” Bybee answers. “So they have the possibility of transmitting germs, but there is nothing particularly associated to a dog…. Another risk would be having pet hair on some food. It’s not really a health risk but something society deems unacceptable.”
Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Justice has proposed some revisions to the ADA, like perhaps disqualifying certain service animals, such as “wild, exotic, or unusual species, many of which are untrained,” from coverage under the definition.
“Moving new legislation through Congress is a daunting task. I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for a law change,” Bybee says. “All I can say is that I support any legislation that would give the law some specificity. Until there is clarity, this will continue to be a bone of contention.”