An Ocean City, Maryland man was told that he couldn’t take his pet iguana on the Boardwalk because of a town ordinance banning "undomesticated" pets in public places. Instead of accepting the ruling, he "registered" his pet iguana as a "service animal". Protection of true service animals is critical but the very broad nature of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has let people get away with claiming that their pet is a service animal simply because they want to take their pet places where they are banned. The ADA just "celebrated" its 20th anniversary at the end of last month.

In this case, the owner will not disclose what his disability is or what the iguana does. That’s his right according to the Act, and it lets people get away with anything they want. All he’s saying is "You know it’s like a cat. You put a cat on your lap and you pet it. It makes you feel good. There’s a whole range of disabilities that allows you to do this." That’s a pet, not a specially trained animal that is being used for a specific and necessary service activity, such as a guide dog.

The company that he’s registered the iguana with is a bit of a joke. The first paragraph on their website states:

It’s no secret that many businesses simply aren’t pet-friendly, even though most of the population is. A large number of our clients register their dogs as Certified Service Animals or Emotional Support Animals (ESAs) not just to accompany them into stores, restaurants, motels, or on airline flights (for no extra cost), but to successfully qualify for housing where pets aren’t allowed. Our Service Dog Certification documents formalize and simplify these processes and make qualifying for special housing hassle-free. If you and your service dog become certified with NSAR, both of you are immediately protected under federal law (ADA).

They’re not separating service animals from pets. This is a very important distinction – service animals and pets need to be treated differently. Also, the implication that you have register to have a service animal protected is false advertising, presumably aimed at selling more registrations. You don’t need to be registered by this group, or any other, to be a service animal.

To "register" your dog with this group, you have to

  • Click a box saying you have a disability. (Their list of disabilities requiring service animals is vague and includes things like asthma and diabetes, to conditions for which I have seen no indication that service animals are useful).
  • Click a box saying your dog can fulfill most of their required criteria (it actually says dog, not animal. Therefore, I guess this iguana is registered as a dog).
  • Then – and this is the most important step – you send them money.

Fortunately, there’s light on the horizon. The following clarification of the ADA has been released, and will take effect in early 2011.

Service animal means any dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability. Other species of animals, whether wild or domestic, trained or untrained, are not service animals for the purposes of this definition. The work or tasks performed by a service animal must be directly related to the handler´s disability. Examples of work or tasks include, but are not limited to, assisting individuals who are blind or have low vision with navigation and other tasks, alerting individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing to the presence of people or sounds, providing non-violent protection or rescue work, pulling a wheelchair, assisting an individual during a seizure, alerting individuals to the presence of allergens, retrieving items such as medicine or the telephone, providing physical support and assistance with balance and stability to individuals with mobility disabilities, and helping persons with psychiatric and neurological disabilities by preventing or interrupting impulsive or destructive behaviors. The crime deterrent effects of an animal´s presence and the provision of emotional support, well-being, comfort, or companionship do not constitute work or tasks for the purposes of this definition.