Can a monkey accompany someone into the Will Rogers Arena during an equestrian event?
Or, is it OK to take a serval -- an African cat that can weigh up to 40 pounds and jump 10 feet into the air -- along when eating out at a restaurant?
Those are the sort of questions David Ondich, the Fort Worth disabilities program coordinator, gets a lot.
But new guidelines issued by the Justice Department last week that generally limit the definition of a service animal to a dog performing tasks -- such as guiding a blind person or pulling a wheelchair -- should make his job easier.
Since the Americans with Disabilities Act took effect 20 years ago, people have used monkeys, ferrets and other animals, which led to complaints over what was allowed in public places such as restaurants, stores and hotels.
"I learned that horses see monkeys as predators. That would have been a disruptive situation for the horses and riders," Ondich said.
On March 15, the day the new rules went into effect, Ondich felt confident telling Fort Worth police that an Iraqi war veteran could not take a serval -- which can get as big as a German shepherd -- into a restaurant.
"I had to tell the police that the cat is no longer a service animal with the new rules in effect," he said.
Ondich, who is blind and is aided by a black Labrador named LeJeune, said he believes that other animals besides dogs can be trained to do specific tasks but that there have been abuses as well.
Toni Eames, president of the Michigan-based International Association of Assistance Dog Partners, agreed that the regulations needed tightening.
"I think right now, we have proof that dogs are consistently able to do work that is task oriented, and it is very important that it should relate to the disability," Eames said.
Rule change concerns
According to information on the Justice Department website, there is no limit to the size or breed of dog that can be used for service work.
The dog must be trained for a specific task, such as guiding a blind or visually impaired person, alerting a deaf person to people or sounds, nonviolent protection or rescue work, retrieving medication, and helping someone with a psychiatric or neurological disability by preventing or interrupting destructive or impulsive behavior.
Dogs that provide emotional support or comfort are not considered service animals under the new rules.
Some advocates for the disabled said they are concerned about the impact of the definition change.
Joe Berra, an attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project in Austin, questioned why the definition was changed to exclude animals except dogs.
"The rule could be challenged on a case-by-case basis. Someone would have to show that they would be harmed by the new regulations of excluding animals other than dogs," he said.
"The purpose of the ADA would be to protect those with disabilities and to acknowledge certain rights such as using a service animal is a way for a disabled person to function better in society."
Berra said he does not know why the definition was changed.
"If an animal is not a threat to health and safety, it would seem that there should be some exceptions made," Berra said.
Charlotte Stewart, executive director of REACH Resource Centers on Independent Living, said she doesn't believe many will be affected by the new rules, as most people with disabilities use dogs.
Yet, she is concerned about the limitations.
"Limiting the definition of service animals to a dog that has been individually trained to perform tasks or to do work will definitely have an impact on the lives and independence of those with disabilities who use other animals to perform tasks that they cannot," she said.
Confusion still reigns
However, Eames said monkeys and other animals are still allowed on airplanes under the Air Carrier Access Act and in housing under the Fair Housing Act.
"You have to ask how will the person get their animal to the airport or the place where they are going under these new rules."
Eames added that her organization advocates for higher training standards, and that having an ID card for the animal or papers saying the dog is certified doesn't do much good unless the dog is well-trained.
Fewer than half of the puppies selectively bred for service work make it through training programs, she said.
Another concern is who provides care for the dog.
Eames described a situation in which a school district would not allow a 4-year-old child with autism to have a dog in class. "Not enough emphasis has been placed on the dog itself. Not all dogs can handle working in public."
Yet, Eames said the new rules could lessen abuses:"Hopefully, we won't get as many people trying to fake needing a dog."