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Alternative support animals

Maile Ready and her cockatiel, Chicken, shop at a retail outlet in Great Falls, Montana. The cockatiel remained quiet and did not leave Ready's shoulder throughout the half-hour long shopping trip. 

GREAT FALLS, Mont. — Maile Ready has survived with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and the disorder's accompanying panic attacks for many years. Traditional forms of treatment for her disability, anti-anxiety medications and counseling, offered Ready only limited relief.

Over time, Ready found herself less able to engage in ordinary daily tasks. She was reluctant to engage with new people, felt anxious and afraid. At times she would remain isolated in her home, unwilling or unable to leave the security of her living room.

Today Ready is living a more full and inclusive life, largely due to the ever-present calming and reassuring presence of her cockatiel, Chicken.

"He gives me a life," she said as the diminutive bird sits quietly upon her outstretched forefinger. "He lets me live my life. He lets me be social, keeps me off medications, keeps me happy. He lets me go out. Doesn't let me be a hermit."

Chicken is with Ready wherever she goes, even sleeping with her at night.

Since the 1990s, federal law under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), have made it illegal for a business owner to deny access to physically impaired people accompanied by a service dog. Few people today would object to the now common presence of a trained and well-behaved dog assisting a person who is blind or hearing impaired.

As time has passed; however, what qualifies as a legitimate service animal has become more blurred. Small dogs, cats, miniature pigs, snakes, birds — all these creatures have been and continue to be identified by their owners as providing essential support that allows them to live a more normal life.

A recent YouTube video of a woman attempting to bring a full-grown male peacock with her on a commercial airliner went viral. Many people and business owners ask, are there no limits to the menagerie of animals I must allow in my store? What marks the difference between a legitimate service animal and simply a pet that someone likes to take with them wherever they go?

Ready has already experienced this quandary. On two occasions in recent weeks, Great Falls store owners have informed Ready that she will no longer be allowed into their place of business while carrying her cockatiel.

Ready said she willingly complied on both occasions with the store owner/manager's request that she remove Chicken from their property, but both she and her husband, Dann, are adamant that Chicken provides her with a vital service.

"She has been able to completely quit her anxiety medication," Dann Ready said of Chicken's impact on Maile's life. "It's not that he makes the anxiety completely go away, but having the bird alerts her (Maile) to when she's going to have a panic attack before she even knows it."

Ready said Chicken will exhibit uncommon behavior when he senses Maile is about to experience a panic attack; flapping his wings or flying off her shoulder. When the cockatiel does this, Maile reacts by seeking a comfortable place, perhaps leaving the environment that is sparking her stress, sitting down and getting something to eat or drink to calm her growing anxiety.

Many people may be skeptical of a bird's ability to sense an impending panic attack. However, it is now widely accepted that specially trained dogs can sniff out cancer, and can detect when their owners are about to experience a diabetic or epileptic seizure. It is theorized that these dogs are able to pick up on extremely small quantities of chemicals related to these illnesses that are emitted when their owner exhales.

Whether a cockatiel has some alternative innate ability is not widely accepted, but there is a large body of evidence that animals such as birds can ease and alleviate their owner's anxiety.

National organizations such as Parrots for Patriots have now formed to connect military veterans with birds to help them mitigate the symptoms of PTSD.

But is this enough to qualify a bird or any other animal for all the access privileges outlined under the ADA? Ready contacted the Cascade County Attorney's Office to try and find an answer but was unable to obtain an immediate and clear-cut answer. The county's authority is largely limited to sanitation issues and the control of aggressive or disruptive animals.

"We have no regulatory authority on this," said Tanya Houston, health officer of the Cascade City-County Health Department. "Because it isn't as cut and dry as one might hope, we turn to the county attorney and the state to help us decide on a situational basis. For an establishment that turns to us and is seeking guidance as far as if something should be allowed or not, we would turn them to their own attorneys and advisers to make sure they feel comfortable and are in compliance with the ADA."

Most Montana county and municipal governments do not have specific ordinances defining the rights and responsibilities of service animals, their owners, or of businesses that have questions regarding which animals they can lawfully exclude from their premises

According to Kim Monroe, who has volunteered with the service dog training organization Canine Companions for Independence for the past 18 years, the controlling article of law for what defines a service animal is the Americans with Disabilities Act.

"Service animals are defined as dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities," Monroe read from the ADA. "For an individual with a disability the task performed must be directly related to their disability, such as alerting someone to lowering blood sugar levels, alerting them when to take medication, detecting seizures, opening a door, carrying an item or turning on and off a light."

"A task involves something that that is a physical job that animal does that is related to their disability," Monroe continued. "When a diabetic alert dog alerts to low blood sugar they actually pick something up and bring it to their owner, so that is the task. When a dog alerts an owner with epilepsy, they will come over and they will pull on them or they will bring something to them. It's always task oriented.

"Emotional support or comfort animals are not trained to do a specific job or task. That's why they don't qualify as a service animal."

While the ADA's definition of service animals as "dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks" seems absolute, it's been complicated by the recent addition of "miniature horses" to its list of acceptable service animals.

There is also no language in the ADA requiring that a service animal be trained by a recognized organization, and the United States does not issue service animal identification cards.

Adding to the confusion, other federal agencies maintain separate definitions of what constitutes a legitimate service animal. Commercial airlines are regulated under the Air Carrier Access Act which requires them to accept passage for "any animal that is individually trained or able to provide assistance to a qualified person with a disability; or any animal that assists qualified persons with disabilities by providing emotional support."

That definition would seem to include most birds, but does exclude animals that are too large or heavy to be accommodated in the cabin, animals that pose a direct threat to the safety of others, those that cause a significant disruption of cabin service, and animals prohibited from entering a foreign country on the airplanes schedule.

"Airlines are never required to accept snakes, reptiles, ferrets, rodents and spiders," a Department of Transportation brochure states.

Similar relaxed standards apply under the Fair Housing Act, which states that any person with a mental or physical disability cannot be turned away from housing with their certified service animal or emotional support animal. This includes buildings and apartments that have a "no pets policy" in place.

For Maile Ready, all this amounts to distinctions without difference. She said she has no intention of forcing her cockatiel onto people or businesses that object to it, but she wants people to understand that Chicken far more than just a pet.

"I can live my life the way I used to," Ready said of her bird's positive effect on her life.

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