“Fake” Service Animals Allowed in More Chicago Businesses

Fear of lawsuits may keep some store owners from questioning people with animals

Next time you go shopping, look around: Chances are pretty good that you’ll find that at least one of your fellow patrons has four legs and a fair amount of fur.

More Chicago-area pet owners are taking advantage of rules that are meant to protect disabled people and their service animals, and business owners aren’t doing much about it, NBC5 Investigates has found.

And if pet owners think they’re causing no harm, they should think again.

“They’re taking advantage of me and making my life more difficult,” said Danielle Austin, a Carol Stream woman who lives with cerebral palsy. She depends on Rock, a yellow Labrador retriever which has been trained as a “skilled companion” service dog.

Austin also depends on laws, spelled out in the Americans with Disabilities Act, which protect her right to take Rock anywhere she needs him. “He’s my team partner,” Austin says. “We go everywhere together.”

But now Austin says she’s seeing more people acting as if their pets are entitled to the same rights and access meant exclusively for service animals and the people who depend on them.

NBC5 Investigates previously showed how easy it is to get a pet certified as an “Emotional Support Animal,” or ESA. An ESA is a special classification recognized by law, but only for air travel and housing.

Now there is a virtual cottage industry online, where most anyone can pay a fee and get a letter from a licensed medical professional, attesting to their “need” for an ESA. That letter requires an airline to allow a passenger to sit with an animal – or animals – on a plane flight, free of charge.  

Those ESA rules do not apply to stores or businesses, which are only required to admit true service animals. ADA rules specify that a business owner can ask a person with an animal two things: Is the animal [usually a dog] a service animal required because of a disability, and what work or task has the animal been trained to perform? 

The ADA says a business cannot ask about a person’s disability, can’t require medical documentation, and can’t require the animal to demonstrate its training.

And that’s where many people are taking advantage of stores and businesses, according to Mike Cramer, an attorney who specializes in employer-related matters. 

“There is a lot of confusion among retail business owners,” says Cramer. “People want to err on the side of accommodating their customers, and they want to not get sued.”

Because store owners are so limited in what they can ask, pet owners can basically walk right in, NBC5 Investigates has found.

With the help of Jessica Reedy of Animal Quest, an exotic animal show that tours the Chicago area, NBC5 Investigates producer Courtney Copenhagen set out on a shopping trip down Michigan Avenue, accompanied by Napoleon, a 10-pound “micro piglet.”

Copenhagen has no disabilities. Any store-owner would have every right to question her. She would have truthfully answered that Napoleon was not a service animal, and then would have left the store.
It never happened. Copenhagen and Napoleon visited 15 stores and establishments, ranging from Saks Fifth Avenue and Tiffany & Co. to Burberry, the American Girl Store and Nordstrom, with not a single question or challenge.

They sampled lipstick at Sephora, ordered a sandwich at Potbelly, got a latte at Starbuck’s, and rode three CTA buses, with no questions. Their only challenge: At Lincoln Park Zoo, where they were promptly – and justifiably – shown the exit.

Then Copenhagen repeated the experiment with Bailey, her pet yellow Labrador retriever, and – again – virtually no questions.  Her only challenge came when a security guard asked her – as allowed by the ADA – if her dog was a service dog. When Copenhagen replied that she had a letter certifying Bailey as an “Emotional Support Animal,” the guard relented, even though an ESA’s rights do not extend to stores or businesses.

But Bailey was not alone on Michigan Avenue that day. During a visit to The Apple Store, Bailey was actually one of at least three dogs roaming the aisles.

That’s what worries Danielle Austin. She fears the pets-as-service-animal trend will soon get so out-of-hand that it will make it difficult for Rock to maneuver around peoples’ pets – many of which can be disruptive around a legitimate service animal.

She also fears that any backlash will backfire on her: “Could they start banning us from going places,” Austin wonders. “And then what kind of society would that be?”

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