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RIHA COLUMN: Excuse Me, I’d Like to Dine With My Service Iguana

Dale Venturini, RIHA

Dale Venturini, RIHA

By Dale A. Venturini, President & CEO, Rhode Island Hospitality Association

Recently, one of our members with a number of family-dining establishments encountered a very interesting situation regarding the presence of service animals in a restaurant. While the owner was not in the establishment at the time, staff was approached by a guest who brought a very large iguana with him as his dining companion. He told the hostess that the iguana was a service animal and thus, could legally be brought into the restaurant. He had in hand an outdated copy of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) which stated that his animal qualified.

Naturally, the staff didn’t turn him away, they read the outdated copy of the ADA and allowed him to come into the restaurant and have lunch with this big reptile. Now, for those of you who aren’t up-to-speed on your large iguanas… they can grow up to 5 feet long. The one that visited the restaurant that day wasn’t quite that big, but it was certainly big enough to be noticed and, unfortunately, a number of diners with children immediately left the restaurant angry because the kids were afraid of the animal. The staff was able to get contact information for the upset diners, and the owner later called each personally and explained the situation and was able to remedy any uncomfortable lasting impressions.

This situation got me thinking, and I asked our 600+ members if they were seeing a rise in patrons coming in with four-legged (or more) guests that were proclaimed service animals. While most were not seeing a rise in exotic animals – one member told me that a guest did bring in a boa constrictor as a service animal and the reptile stayed safely (or unsafely) wrapped around the patron’s neck and shoulders for the duration.

However, more and more, owners were seeing folks show up with their house pet and claim that Fido is a service animal. Some of the pets – mostly dogs – were unruly, ill-behaved and downright disruptive to other guests. But, management did not want to turn them away for fear of violating the ADA.

In 2011, The Department of Justice issued revised ADA Title II (state and local government programs) and Title III (private businesses). These regulations thankfully revised the outdated definition of service animals and added some additional provisions. Specifically, the definition of a service animal has been streamlined to include: any DOG that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of the individual with a disability. Other species of animals, whether wild or domestic, trained or untrained, are NOT considered service animals.

The only exception to this rule is miniature horses. Yes, you read that correctly. And according to the ADA, any public entity or private business needs to permit the use of a miniature horse as a service animal if the miniature horse has been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of the person with the disability. Of course, there are extenuating circumstances… the weight of the horse; its size, etc. are factors that contribute to whether or not the animal is safely allowed into an establishment.

Please note, business owners and staff are only allowed to ask two questions of a patron bringing in a service animal: Is this animal required because of a disability? And, what work or task has this animal been trained to perform? Staff may not, by law, ever ask about the nature of someone’s disability and also, cannot ask for any documentation or proof that the animal has been certified or trained as a service animal. Further, the animal does NOT have to wear any identifying tags, a special vest, or other designation.

So, as you welcome your patrons through your doors, please make note. Yes, they can bring in their service animals if they are dogs or miniature horses. Understand what you can legally ask about the animal, and please feel free to do so. At the end of the day, we are about hospitality, accommodation and making people feel welcome. It’s a fine balance between the needs of one person versus the comfort level of the masses.

A veteran of more than 25 years in the hospitality industry, Dale Venturini is considered by many to be the voice of the industry in the state of Rhode Island. She has been instrumental in improving the industry’s educational and training programs in the state, as well as enhancing the bottom line of the business she represents. Ms. Venturini splits her time between the office and the State House, a constant presence for her membership.

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