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Newsletter - Animal Writes sm
25 August 1999 Issue

SERVICE DOG SUES OWNER
By Michelle Rivera, MRivera008@aol.com

We've all seen them. They're heroic, dignified, selfless, and compassionate. And whether we call them seeing-eye dogs, guide dogs or leader dogs, we always call them special. We see a sightless person living a normal life because of their constant companion-helper, and it gives our heart a lift! We know not to pet them or distract them as they go about their important business, and yet we can't help but to smile to ourselves and say "Isn't that wonderful, look what the human-dog covenant has brought!" But what if the covenant is broken? What if the relationship between man and dog just isn't what it appears, but something more sinister?

Such was the case in the summer of 1994 when I answered the phone at the Animal Rights Foundation of Florida (ARFF) in Broward County, Florida. As a legal assistant to ARFF's in-house counsel, I had heard a lot of cases of animal abuse, but this was a first for us. The caller was a gentleman who was calling for advice on how to help Sunny. Sunny was a healthy, beautiful yellow-lab who, at the tender age of two, had suffered abuse and neglect at the hands of an ungrateful owner.

"Her owner brings her into the bar every night", the caller said, "He forces her to drink beer, and people are always falling over her, stumbling around. The guy is blind, I know, but geez, even blind people ought to know how to treat a dog, it's a real shame." A real shame indeed. The caller went on to relate that the owner made his living selling "pharmaceuticals" on the street, and was himself high most of the time. "I worry about that nice dog", he said, "Is there anything that you can do?"

My first instinct was to drive to the bar and steal Sunny away. Better sense prevailed, however, and I knew that to do so would not only put myself and Sunny in danger, but it wasn't a long-term solution, as Sunny's owner would probably just get another dog. So I called the bar and spoke to the bartender, who verified the caller's story. "Yeah, she comes in here all the time, that dog. She ain't no trouble, she just kind of lays around. Everyone pets her and gives her stuff to eat." When I asked if he had ever known Sunny to drink beer, the bartender laughed and admitted that he had. "Am I gonna get busted now that I'm servin' an underage dog," he joked. The thing was, I didn't see anything funny about Sunny's situation.

Guide dogs are among the most expensive animals in the world. It takes approximately $17,000 to acquire and train a seeing-eye dog, (the cost is not passed on to the blind recipient, organizations that perform this service are non-profits and the money comes from donations). While the animals are usually "donated" to the service organization, the costs involve veterinary necessities, the costs of the training, housing, feeding and medicating the animal. This money also covers transportation and accommodations for the blind person who must be "trained" to use the services of a guide dog. Some of the skills the dog/owner team learn are: alerting to changes in elevation, safely maneuvering around obstacles; being alert to dangerous traffic situations, giving and taking directional instructions, locating curbs, doors, and steps. They must also learn to ignore the distracting influences of other animals, friendly people and frightening noises encountered during a day's work.

The concept began in 1927 when German Shepherds were specially trained as guides for World War I veterans who had lost their sight in battle. Due to their intense training and the unprecedented trust placed in them, dog guides are permitted in hotels, on public transportation, in restaurants, stores and other places to which the general public is invited. They have the right to accompany their sightless owners wherever the owner may go. The Americans with Disabilities Act reinforces this right on a federal level.

But their inalienable right to go wherever they're needed does not convey upon them any degree of protection. For that, we still need laws against cruelty to animals. So I contacted the Broward County Sheriff. Their Crimes Against Animals unit is so aggressive and proactive, it was featured on Oprah! Surely they could help Sunny escape from her abusive owner, and charge the owner with animal cruelty. But unfortunately, this was not to be. It turns out that feeding a dog beer does not constitute, as written in the Florida Statutes, animal cruelty. The allegations of drug dealing and neglect were unsubstantiated, and so prosecution was not an option.

With only the owner's first name and the dog's name to go on, I needed to find the school from which Sunny graduated. I was confident that the school staff would want to know that one of their own was not being treated with respect. I called my "informant" back and asked if there was any identifying information on Sunny's harness or collar that might give me a clue as to where she may have come from. There was! The name of the school was tooled into the leather harness, but was worn and unreadable. The only legible letters were CA. The school was in California! I had a clue!

Of course, with the Internet being what it is, I found the school within minutes. A few phone calls and I was talking to the head of the school from where Sunny was graduated. It turns out that each recipient signs a contract upon taking responsibility of the dog. The school retains ownership of the dog for the dogs' life. Ownership is never relinquished, and therefore the privilege of owning the dog can be revoked at any time. What we were unable to accomplish with criminal statutes we could achieve with the threat of a lawsuit for breach of contract! The school wasted no time in coming to Ft. Lauderdale and within twenty-four hours school officials, along with the Broward County Sheriff were taking Sunny out of her squalor and abuse. She was going home to people who loved her, cherished her and respected her. She was to be placed with a deserving person who would appreciate her for the lifesaver that she is.

That Sunny's owner turned out to be a creep is no reflection on schools that train and place guide dogs. Quite the opposite, their diligence and speed in removing Sunny at the first hint of trouble is to their credit. They were only too happy to get Sunny back, and were grateful to ARFF for pursuing the matter. With so many deserving, disabled people awaiting their special companion animal, no dog should have to suffer an ungrateful owner. Indeed, no animal should ever live without our respect and gratitude for all they do to enhance our lives.

[Editor's Note: A list of Guide Dog Schools is available by e-mail request from JJswans@aol.com ]

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