Bill targets growing problem of bogus service animals

State lawmakers introduced a bill that would make it a crime to falsely present an animal as a service animal.

Senate Bill 2461, introduced Jan. 19, would make the act of falsely claiming an animal to be a service animal a misdemeanor offense, punishable by a maximum penalty of up to six months in jail or up to $1,000 for the first offense.

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Sen. Russell Ruderman, D-Puna, who spearheaded the bill, said the measure is intended to prevent people from abusing the system and bringing untrained pets into public places, which can lead to owners of legitimate service animals being treated with suspicion and annoyance.

“There are two kinds of animals we’re talking about,” Ruderman said. “There are the (Americans with Disabilities Act) service animals. Then there are the so-called ‘comfort animals’ or ‘emotional support’ animals.”

Problems arise, Ruderman said, when people attempt to bring an emotional support animal — which is, in reality, a pet with no special training at all — into a place where it isn’t allowed. Then, when challenged, the owner claims the animal is a service animal whose presence is necessary for the owner to cope with a disability.

“People are cautious about challenging people who say that,” said Ruderman, who noted chains such as Safeway, KTA Super Stores and Walmart stopped questioning people with animals entirely.

Ruderman, owner of the grocery chain Island Naturals, said complaints about obviously false service animals are common in the retail industry and have occurred more and more frequently in recent years.

“I remember I once had a woman come up to me shaking because she was afraid of this huge Great Dane that someone brought in,” Ruderman said. “It was behaving very aggressively, and it wasn’t even on a leash.”

Because of incidents like these, people with legitimate need for a service animal are often viewed with resentment by people who are used to having to accommodate obviously untrained “comfort animals,” Ruderman said.

Ruderman said there is no “clear, objective” way to easily prove an animal is a trained service animal. Although people ask for certificates and colored vests, the ADA does not require service animals to be certified, and such items can be easily obtained online — “having a vest only proves that you can buy a vest online,” Ruderman said.

Because of this, Ruderman conceded that the law would be difficult to enforce, but said he thinks the potential penalties will be sufficient to deter most offenders.

If nothing else, Ruderman said, it would prevent “absurdities” such as a January incident at a Newark, N.J., airport, where a woman attempted to bring an “emotional support” peacock onto a United Airlines flight. The bird, which violated size requirements, was unable to board.

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The bill also will revise legal language to change references to “service dogs” to the term “service animal,” which is the term used by the ADA. As of 2011, only dogs are able to become service animals.

Email Michael Brestovansky at mbrestovansky@hawaiitribune-herald.com