Exploring the rules of animal accommodations in public spaces

The complexity of and difference in rules for accommodations for those with disabilities in various settings is confusing, Professor Rothstein says.
Exploring the rules of animal accommodations in public spaces

My colleague Laura Rothstein, Distinguished University Scholar and Professor of Law, is an expert on disability law, among other things. This expertise has led her to work recently on questions involving the extent to which animals are welcome in public places. Her guest blog entry below lays out some of the issues. Be sure to read to the end — so that you enjoy the photo of Skip!


Professor Laura Rothstein

Although the United States is a pet-loving country, American culture (unlike Europe, where small dogs are seen in many public places) has historically not supported having these guests in most public places. The exception was the traditional “seeing eye” dog — the German Shepherd or the Lab. The desire to bring our four-legged and two-legged friends (and even no-legged snakes) to public places, however, has increased dramatically in recent years. Recent news stories report about turkeys on planes, parrots in backpacks and kangaroos at McDonald’s. Which of these animals is legally permitted as an accommodation for an individual with a disability?  

This issue was the topic of my most recent publication (which also has the longest title of anything I’ve ever written): Puppies, Ponies, Pigs, and Parrots:  Policies, Practices and Procedures in Pubs, Pads, Planes and Professions:  Where We Live, Work, and Play, and How We Get There:  Animal Accommodations in Public Places, Housing, Employment and Transportation, 23 Animal L.13 (2018)

The article is one of several in a symposium issue that resulted from a panel at the annual Association of American Law Schools conference in January 2017.

The complexity of and difference in rules for accommodations for those with disabilities in various settings is confusing. The increasing presence of the Noah’s Ark of creatures in public places and other settings, however, requires that airports, hotels, restaurants, college campuses, employers, hospitals, landlords and courthouses prepare those on the front lines about what to do when someone shows up with an animal. A Supreme Court case even addressed this issue in the context of a 13-year old girl seeking to bring Wonder, her service dog, into a public school to assist her with mobility issues and to facilitate independence.  

Several federal laws apply — the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Fair Housing Act, the Rehabilitation Act, the Air Carrier Access Act, and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. The application of these laws varies depending on whether the animal accommodation is requested for an employment, housing, transportation, public service or public accommodation setting. It can be particularly complicated when a setting such as a college campus is involved with students, staff and faculty and visitors who go to class, attend football games, live in fraternity and sorority houses and eat in food courts on campus.  

The confusion on college campuses can be illustrated by considering whether and where Elle Woods (from the movie Legally Blond) could bring Bruiser, her famed Chihuahua. In the movie, she starts out at a public university in California where she lives in a sorority house (might be private club exception under ADA). She then moves to attend Harvard Law School (a private university) and lives in campus housing. She works as a research assistant for a professor, at a firm, and goes to court. She goes to a beauty salon and spends time on campus and at the local park. What if she went to a sports event on campus?  

So in which settings would Bruiser be allowed? The question was never an issue in the movie, but it highlights the many locations where it could be an issue. Answering that question would require a determination of whether Elle had a disability, what documentation she would be required to present about her disability and about Bruiser’s training or certification, whether Bruiser was a service dog or an emotional support animal, and whether the particular setting was covered by one of the relevant federal statutes or even a local or state law. Even if Bruiser were eligible for the setting, he could be removed if he was not under control or harmed or disturbed others. What if others were allergic or had phobias?  

Health care settings have other sets of concerns relating to health issues. The presence of a dog in a waiting room presents different concerns than bringing it to a delivery room or allowing it to remain in the hospital room with a patient. Airline travel is also particularly challenging because different statutes apply to the flight service than apply to the airport facilities themselves.  

The article explores the specific requirements under federal statutes and in the various settings. It also sets out some areas that would benefit from attention. What makes animal accommodations particularly unique is that they are one of the few accommodations that might require another individual (not just an entity) to accommodate the disability. Professor Rothstein's dog, Skip

This is increasingly being highlighted in situations where others have phobias or allergies, with little federal guidance about how to resolve the tensions between the individual needs. The article also makes clear how important it is for those on the front line in various settings to be trained about what questions are permissible to ask the person with an animal. 

Disability accommodation with support or service animals is an issue of great current interest to many of the conference attendees where I speak, particularly college and university administrators. I also enjoy discussing this issue in my property and torts classes, where they learn that not all dogs get one bite!  

My dog, Skip (a rescue dog), provided emotional support while I wrote the article on this topic.