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Friday, August 29, 2014

Protect and Serve

I've spent about half of my life working with wild animals of every sort, but I'll always have a soft spot for dogs.  I'm not referring to "dogs" as in members of the Candiae - wolves, foxes, etc - but rather... dogs.  The pet ones.  I had dogs for much of my childhood, and my parents still have one, who I like to pamper and fuss over on those infrequent occasions when I actually visit home.  When I finally achieve some stability in life, I hope to have dogs of my own.  I had a lot of fun with dogs growing up, whether playing in the yard, going for walks, or just plopping down on the couch together, watching a movie.

One thing I never did with my dogs, however, was take them to the zoo.  They weren't allowed in, and with good reason.

I can usually tell when a dog has snuck into zoo grounds.  The animals are quick to let us know.  It may start off with the indignant screaming of llamas, the whooping of primates, or the cries of cranes - every animal starts to make noise.  Usually, lots of it.  This is especially true when a stray dog or one that's slipped its leash comes tearing through the zoo, running wild and panicking every animal it encounters.  Some, like the birds, are terrified.  Others, like the large carnivores, seem to be saying, "Bring it on!"

There is only one situation in which dogs are generally welcome on zoo grounds, and that is if they are service animals.  Now... what does that even mean?

A service animal is a dog (infrequently a miniature horse, but that need not distract us) trained to assist a person with an ADA recognized disability.  It could be a seeing-eye dog for the visually impaired, for instance, or a dog trained to recognize the onset of a seizure.  These dogs are all business - usually wearing a vest or some other identifier, calm and collected, more professional that most people I know.  These dogs seldom cause a fuss among the animals; when they do, they tend not to add fuel to the fire by barking or running or pulling at the leash, like a usual dog would do when confronted with, say, a full-grown grizzly.

Service dogs can't go anywhere in a zoo that people can go - they can't enter enclosures with animals, such as a kangaroo walk-through or an aviary.  On a recent visit to Jacksonville Zoo, I was in one of the aviaries when a service dog walked in (against zoo rules).  The panic it caused was extraordinary - within seconds, the air was filled with ducks, ibises, and man-sized storks, all dropping feces in a smelly, terror-fueled rain.  Not a good experience for anyone... especially those who got hit.

Such occasional incidents aside, service dogs in a zoo usually work fine.  Their handlers just need to accept some basic rules of courtesy.  For example, if your dog is causing some animals to panic, please just keep moving.  What really irritates me, though, are the recent headaches of fake service animals.  These are dogs that do NOT assist people with ADA disabilities, but are just... pets.  Oh, some are called therapy dogs and are used to comfort people with emotional problems, which is great, but they are not service dogs and are not trained as such.  The line for what makes a dog a therapy dog is a blurry one, and it would be easy to end up with the zoo being opened up to every dog that came in.

This would be bad for the animals, as we've seen (and God help us if a dog jumps into an enclosure, a problem I've had to deal with before).  It's bad for the zoo - imagine the liability if a person gets bitten by another visitor's dog.  It's also not great for the dogs themselves - I'm sure some of the smells (especially the more scatological ones) would be fascinating for the dogs, but imagine the stress and terror that a small dog is going to feel when it sees a tiger staring at it, licking its lips!  If people have a dog in the zoo and say it's a service animal, I'll take them at their word... but watch them.  If they can't control their animal, or it causes problems, it's time for them to leave.

The only thing worse, I fear, than people smuggling dogs into the zoo in their purses, as I've seen, is leaving them locked in their cars while they visit the zoo, especially on a hot summer day.  It would be great if zoos could have kennels to accommodate pets while they visited the facility, but I'd worry about liability, let alone the possibility of abandonment.

If in doubt as to whether or not your dog is appropriate for a visit to the zoo, call ahead and ask.  If the zoo says "yes", try to follow their rules and show courtesy to their animals.  If they say "no", it means "no."  Zoos and aquariums are full of wonderful animals.  You don't need to bring your own.

PS: As for the ever-popular service monkeys... just a bad idea.  Between the prospect of disease transmission, escape and interaction with zoo animals, or the likelihood of other visitors trying to touch it and getting bitten, it's a nightmare.

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