Wednesday, August 26, 2015

On service animals, therapy animals, and taking your dog with you to the store: an essay

I have a friend of a friend of a friend who, earlier this year, decided that she wanted a hedgehog.

Specifically, she wanted a "service hedgehog." See, she had been at the mall and there had been a guy there walking around carrying a hedgehog. She asked about it, and he explained he was "allowed" to, because it was a "service hedgehog."

There's at least three things wrong with this scenario. First, we live in the state of California, where hedgehogs are illegal (with rare exceptions; you must own a special permit to own one and justify why you have one).

Second, there is also no such thing as a "service hedgehog." I suppose you could have a "therapy hedgehog," but even if you did, it probably wouldn't be allowed in the mall or the state of California.

Finally, hedgehogs are notoriously grumpy animals. If you needed emotional support of any kind, a hedgehog would be one of the last animals I would recommend.

I had to explain all this in excruciating detail to the friend-of-the-friend, who really, really wanted a hedgehog. Her central argument was "But they're so cute!" It's hard to argue with that, because it's true. They're really cute.

Fortunately I managed to explain to her why she couldn't have a service hedgehog. I don't know whether the guy with the "service hedgehog" was lying or if he'd been completely misinformed by someone else, but this is not the first time I've heard someone misuse or misunderstand the concept of service animals and the legality of taking them into public spaces.

And so, if you've heard of this, considered it for your pet, or want more information, here's the scoop.

Disclaimer: I researched this only for my own interest (and to talk the friend-of-the-friend down from getting a hedgehog), and I am not a lawyer. These rules apply only to the United States, and some states may have other laws and amendments, so be sure to do your own research before you start taking Toto with you to Target.

Let's start with definitions. What's the difference between a SERVICE animal, and an ASSISTANCE animal?

A service animal is defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act as a dog (or other animal, but generally a dog) that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities.  Under the ADA, service animals MUST be dogs or miniature horses.  No other animal qualifies as a service animal.  Furthermore, the work or task a dog has been trained to provide must be directly related to the person's disability. Dogs whose sole function is to provide comfort or emotional support do not qualify as service animals under the ADA.

For an animal to be covered by ADA law, there must be a clear correlation between the disability and the animal; if you're blind you can't demand to be allowed gerbils in your dorm.  Your service animal must perform a specific, trained task that has a clear correlation to your disability.

What's more, a service animal cannot have service "transferred." Beware of scams that claim to have licensed "service animals" that you can buy and take anywhere. If you're not blind, you can't just go out and get a seeing-eye dog to take to Steak n' Shake with you, no matter how delicious their new Mint Oreo Cookies n' Cream Shake™ looks. Also, beware of sites like this that let you "register" your animal. This site and others like it are NOT government-supported and do NOT make your dog into a legal service animal. There is no such thing as an online registration process that magically makes your dog into a service dog, only sites that help you convincingly fake it. Misrepresenting your animal as a "service dog" is a federal offense. Laws very by state, but misrepresenting a dog as a service animal generally carries a penalty of a fine and/or jail time. In my state of California, the fine is $1,000 and/or 6 months in jail.

How do you train a service dog? There are no official federal licensing rules, with the exception of the Guide Dogs for the Blind. They are classified differently from service dogs and fall under the jurisdiction of the Department of Consumer Affairs. Training of guide dogs is done by instructors who are licensed through the state.

For other service dogs, most training is done through private organisations that have vetting processes for the disabled to obtain a trained animal.

But what about "assistance" or "therapy" dogs? An assistance animal (such as a therapy animal or an emotional support animal) (also called an "ESA") does not perform a specific task but provides general comfort or support. (Although there's some debate, federally, seizure dogs are indeed currently covered by the ADA for doing a specific task, called an "alert.)

The difference between a therapy dog and an ESA is that therapy animals help other people, while emotional support animals help their handler."  Both can be called "assistance" dogs. However, neither is a "service" animal.

Assistance animals (ESAs) are covered under the Fair Housing Act. Therapy dogs are not covered under this law. Property managers/landlords are NOT required to make a reasonable accommodation under the Fair Housing Act for either assistance or service animals in these special cases:
  • Buildings with 4 or less units where the landlord occupies one of the units.
  • Single family housing sold or rented without a real estate broker.
  • Hotels and motels are not considered dwellings under the FHA, but are considered places of public accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act. So if you're blind, your dog is allowed at the Embassy Suites, but if you're depressed and have an emotional support dog, the dog doesn't need to be allowed.
  • Private Clubs.
Public universities are required to comply with the Fair Housing Act, which includes allowing emotional support animals into college dormitories and residence halls. Private universities may or may not be required to comply, however. They are not allowed to charge you for keeping the animal but may request a refundable deposit in case the animal does any damage.

Laws allow a property manager to accept a letter from the tenant's licensed mental health professional (LMHP) for an ESA, and may require a verification form to be completed by a physician or LMHP, confirming the tenant's physical/emotional/psychiatric disability. You are not legally required to say what your disability or emotional problem is; you only need the letter stating that you have a disability and need the animal. Landlords may not ask you "why" you need the animal or what the animal does; this violates HIPAA privacy law.

Note that in order for verification to be accepted, it must come from a LICENSED mental health professional; a general practitioner of medicine, a non-licensed counselor, or a social worker wouldn't count.

Although your landlord cannot refuse your animal on the general basis of weight, species, or training, they CAN charge you for any damages the animal does to the property, and they CAN evict you if the animal is destructive, unruly, or causing undue disturbance or distress on the property. Please note that the law says "reasonable accommodations" must be made, so while your landlord might be forced to allow a pitbull even if he has a "no pitbull" rule, he does NOT have to allow a tiger, or to install a pool for your duck. "Reasonable accommodation" means the landlord must allow the animal but doesn't necessarily have to make extreme accommodations; for example, installing a doggy door or otherwise altering the property for the animal. It also means the burden of caring for the animal and keeping it from destroying property falls on you, the owner of the animal.

Note that under BOTH laws, private institutions and residences are not covered. A condominium, which would be a "private residence," does not have to allow your dog in.

Under the ADA, service dogs are NOT required to wear the vests we so often see them with. Your dog doesn't need a vest or a special harness or tags. It doesn't even need a lead! It DOES need a license and a rabies vaccine, just like any other dog, though. The reason for the vests are a handy way of displaying the service license to avoid unwanted attention or questions, and also a handy way of preventing other people from trying to pet the dog. (Most vests will say "DO NOT TOUCH; WORKING DOG" on them.) But strictly speaking, you cannot be turned away from a business if you have a service dog that isn't wearing his vest. A service dog is a service dog regardless of whether or not he's wearing a vest. What's more, business owners cannot legally ask you for your service dog's ID or license. If you say it's a service dog, they must allow it (provided that it is not shitting on the floor, jumping on anyone, barking, or otherwise causing mayhem). Business owners are allowed to ask what what specific task the dog is trained to do, however.

How about service puppies, or service dogs in training? NOT covered by the ADA (varies by state; clauses in Texas and Arizona allow service dogs in training to go into stores). "In training" doesn't fall under the ADA because they aren't performing a specific task, and the handler isn't themselves disabled (usually).

Disabled people are allowed to train their own service dog, but while the dog is in training, it is not considered a true service dog.

A lot of people ask why dogs aren't allowed to go with them into every business. You've all probably heard the "health issue" argument. But there's more to it than that. Even a well-trained dog that doesn't shit on the floor might cause allergic reactions in other patrons. The owner of the business also has to worry about liability/biting issues, and whether the dog might destroy something. Finally, just because YOU are comfortable with your pet doesn't mean other people will be. Some people are genuinely frightened of dogs and unfamiliar with them. Even a friendly dog might seen scary to someone who doesn't like dogs. Not allowing a dog into a business is the business owner's attempt to protect the property, merchandise, and other patrons from allergies, feces, vomit, biting, nuisance, or general unruliness.

"But my dog would never bite anyone!"

Maybe not, but the business owner doesn't know that! And let's be honest: we all have blind spots when it comes to our own pets. We love our pets, and many owners fail to see their dog's bad behaviour.

So why are service/therapy dogs different? Most service or even therapy dogs have undergone extensive training.  For therapy dogs or hospital visitation dogs, there are organizations like Pet Partners or TDI that have obedience tests that far exceed the standards set by pet organizations like the AKC.  Hospitals set their own standards; here's Cedars-Sinai's page as one example.

Service animals must demonstrate that a dog remains under the trainer or owner's control even when distracted. Part of the reason service dogs are allowed in public spaces is because of a "guarantee" of good behaviour. A service dog should, in public, keep its nose to itself, and should not whine, pace, or be distracted. A business owner can ask a person with a service animal to leave if the service animal goes berserk.

Before dragging your dog out in public, ask yourself:
  • How housetrained is it? Can it/does it let you know when it has to go?
  • Does your dog ever jump up when excited, either on people or furniture? Does your dog ever bark?
  • If you dropped the lead, would your dog run away? What if there was another dog, or the temptation of food?
  • Is your dog easily startled? When startled, does your dog become difficult to control?
  • Are there "triggers" your dog has, such as loud noises, squirrels, or people wearing hats?
  • How readily does your dog obey your commands? Does your dog sit, wait, lay down, and come when called EVERY TIME, even when distracted?
Here's an interesting article in the New Yorker about a journalist who went about town with various animals to see how it worked. The short answer is, if your animal is well-behaved, a lot of people won't question the animal's presence, and most people are unfamiliar with the legal difference between an emotional support animal and a service animal.

If reading over this information has caused you some internal debate about dragging your pet around town, never fear! There are pet-friendly businesses that do allow dogs, even if they are just pets and not licensed service animals. Here's some places that have been previously lauded as dog-friendly:
  • Home Depot, Lowe's, and other hardware stores.
  • Petco, PetSmart, or other pet stores.
  • Pottery Barn, Michaels, and Jo-Ann Fabrics.
  • Bed, Bath, and Beyond.
  • Some Targets. (Note: many will require your dog to ride in the cart.)
  • Barnes and Nobles, as well as many other book stores. (Cafes often excluded!)
  • Macy's, Gap, Bloomingdale's, Urban Outfitters, Anthropologie, Footlocker, Bebe, Nordstrom, Old Navy, TJ Maxx, Homegoods,and Marshalls are all stores that, while officially refusing dogs, are known to allow some dogs.  It varies by store and by the policies of the individual store manager.
  • Some Goodwills.
  • Some shopping malls.
  • College campuses.
  • Some CVS and Walgreen's locations (double-check; in Los Angeles, you are often asked to carry the dog.)
Keep in mind, although these stores are GENERALLY dog-friendly, they allow or disallow pets at their discretion. Each franchise can make its own rules, and various states and localities have their own laws. If you're not sure, call and ask.

If you want more information about this issue, I highly recommend this article, which says pretty much everything I just did and more. Please check the legality of getting or using a service or assistance dog before you do, out of respect for both the law and the truly disabled. Misrepresenting service dogs can cause discrimination problems for the disabled.

The purpose of this post was to help educate those who find these laws complicated and want to learn more.

Thanks for reading!

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Saying "Yes" To Gnotobiotics!

In case you weren't aware, "gnotobiotics" is pronounced as "NO-TOE-biotics."  So now you've learned something, maybe!

What's gnotobiotics, and why am I saying yes to it?

Back story: recently I decided that it's time for me to seek out greener pastures, career-wise.  I like my little husbandry position just fine and I love my supervisor to death, but at the end of the day, I've grown as much as I can hope to, and I'm very much over-qualified.  The last time I applied for a job it didn't end well; I was given an offer lower than what I currently make.

But I can't sit around in my underpants forever, writing Avengers/GotG crossovers, and subjecting my poor readers to them, so I decided to give the job seeking thing another go.

It's never a good thing when fandoms cross.

The thing that prompted me was an interesting post on /r/biology about, what else, gnotobiotics and the gut-brain axis.  Gnotobiotics means "known microbes."  Your body, as you probably are aware, isn't just made up for "you" cells, but also of tons of little other cells that help you out.  (Incidentally, termites have symbiotic, prokaryotic parasites that live in their guts and help them digest the wood when they chew through your porch.)

How many microbes do you have?  Roughly ten times more microbial cells than "self" cells.  You are mostly microbe.  The microbes play a key role not only in what you can digest, but also in how you develop, how you act, and your general perceptions and reactions to your environment.  They're kind of a big deal.  Studies on the "gut-brain axis" are very, very big right now in the science world.

For more information, go read this book here.

So a "gnotobiotic" animal is one in which we know what microbes inhabit its gut.  Everyone has different microbes, and they cultivate our gastrointestinal track over our lifetimes.  Because we all live in filthy, filthy environments, there's no telling what types of bacteria reside within us.  To get a gnotobiotic animal, you start with a sterile animal (called "axenic," -xenic meaning foreign and the a- prefix meaning without; these animals have no foreign microbes inside them) and then you introduce it to the bacteria you want it to have.  So if you have Mouse A, with Bacteria A, and Mouse B, with Bacteria B, and Mouse C, with no bacteria, and you notice that Mouse B can eat carrots without getting diarrhea and that Mice A and C can't, you can conclude that Bacteria B within Mouse B is helping Mouse B eat carrots somehow.  And if Mouse A is a total asshole but Mouse B and Mouse C aren't, you can conclude that Bacteria A might have some affect on aggression; perhaps Bacteria A influences the mouse's body to ramp up testosterone production.  Or perhaps Mouse A is simply an asshole.  We don't know, which is why we're studying this.

To search for jobs, I went to a few university and hospital websites and typed in the word "mouse."  Not very inspired, I know.  I just wanted to see what was out there, and I knew I wanted to keep working with rodent models.

Lo and behold, UCLA had a single opening for a researcher, and that opening was... get ready for it... in a brand-spanking-new, first-of-its-kind, state-of-the-art gnotobiotics lab.

And then I asked how much it paid and HR just mailed me back this picture.

I applied and got a call back.  The PI (aka the primary investigator; the lab boss) and I had a great chat but she expressed concern that I don't have much experience of benchwork (doing things like pipetting fluids and looking into microscopes).  I replied with an eloquent argument that basically boiled down to, "Yeah, but, this work is so interesting.  I'm really enthusiastic.  C'mon.  Just give me a chance."

I assumed that was the end of it, but a few days later she called and invited me to come tour the lab.  Joy!

On Saturday morning, Andrew asked if I'd like him to accompany me to UCLA. I said yes because I wasn't sure how easy it would be to find parking. He drove me to UCLA's campus and dropped me off. After parking, he went looking for the building I was in to wait in the lobby.

Meanwhile, I had found the building and the PI, who had locked her keys in the lab. We ended up conducting the interview outside. The campus was nearly empty and while we were talking, suddenly, Andrew appeared. He was actually heading toward us, but when he realized it was us, he changed course. Instinctively, I waved to him.

The PI paused, and then asked, "Do you know him?"

Sudden embarrassment washed over me. Oh God, I thought, How silly and childish will I look if I say that's my boyfriend?

I heard myself saying, "Yes, he's a lab manager at Cedars-Sinai."  (Important note: he actually is.)

"Oh! Do you collaborate with Cedars-Sinai?"

"Yes, we've got some mice from them in quarantine right now."

I couldn't believe how smoothly I'd managed to save a potentially devastating situation.  (Important note: without lying.  I'm not going to lie at a job interview.  Thank God Andy's a lab manager and not a musician, or I would have looked like a real chump.)

The PI told me at the end of the interview she'd like to offer me the position, so now I'm just waiting on an e-mail from HR.  I should start sometime in late September or early October.  My duties include setting up isolators, giving mice C-sections, doing fecal assays, and monitoring the colony for contamination.  Also, she's going to be sending me to the AALAS National Convention in November!  Woot!  I felt like we really clicked and I can't begin to describe how eager and excited I am to have a real influence on research being done, to contribute to the scientific community, and to feel like my work matters.  This might also be the first step on the road to my getting my Master's degree. 

For more information, here's her old website.

And here's a TED Talk she gave on her work, which I'm sure even the scientifically illiterate among you will agree is fascinating.  AND I'M GOING TO BE A PART OF IT!!

And now, for those who come here for my fiction, here is my latest and greatest work, inspired by the writing prompt, "An ancient evil awakens; a modern evil doesn't like competition."

 A Modern Curse

The door to room 309 opened slowly, casting a soft beam of fluorescent light on its occupants. Mark Horowitz, age 89, lay sleeping on the hospital bed, his heart monitor beeping out a steady tattoo.
The man who entered room 309 was not a doctor, but might have been a patient. He was gaunt and bony. His skin had a grey, waxy appearance. His teeth were too widely spaced and appeared too loose to be healthy; his eyes were rheumy and slightly yellow. His nails were too long. His hair, black, was greasy, thinning. His breath rattled in his chest, and from every pore came a sickly sweet smell that was reminiscent of rotting things. He was not wearing a patient's gown, however. He was wearing a neatly tailored pinstripe suit.

"Hey gramps."

The man in the suit stopped by Mark Horowitz's bed and noticed, for the first time, a young man sitting beside him. The young man was in jeans; his t-shirt was well-worn but clean. He had blond hair held into a stubby mohawk with gel. His chin had a few lightly colored hairs, and it was clear he was attempting, and failing at, a beard. His face was an open, honest one; he looked like a guy who might be on the football team but wasn't the star quarterback. A handsome (if forgettable) fellow.
"Hello," said the man in the pinstripe suit in a gravely voice. This prompted a wet, hacking cough. He grabbed one of the hospital bed's guard rails to steady himself. His hands shook.

The young man didn't even watch. His attention had been diverted to the phone in his hands, where he was playing Candy Crush.

"So you're Pestilence, huh?"

"H-how... did you know?" asked the man in the suit between coughs. Shakily, he reached into his pocket and pulled out a card. He offered it to the younger man, but he waved it away.

"I've heard about you, from Famine. I'm Disconnection. But they all call me Dis."

"A pleasure," gasped Pestilence, dabbing his eyes with a handkerchief.

"Yeah, yeah. Sorry you wasted your time but he's going to be okay."

"I beg your pardon?"

"Mark." Disconnection twisted in the chair so that his legs dangled over the armrest. He tilted back his head, holding his phone over his face. The screen illuminated his blond goatee, or what was supposed to be a goatee. His fingers texted rapidly as he spoke. "The doctors are going to get him a liver transplant so the cirrhosis is probably not going to get him. Sorry to disappoint you."

"They're curing him?" asked Pestilence, dumbfounded. "But... the pneumonia..."

"Antibiotics. Hey, do you have FaceBook?"

Pestilence looked down at Mark. He didn't look 89. He looked much younger, and his face was peaceful.

Pestilence looked up at Dis. "But where are his grandkids? They weren't vaccinated. They're supposed to be here, catching the measles."

"Sorry bro. They're not coming. Aiden's got a raid and Mackenzie is a mod for Advice Animals, so they're sort of busy."

"But he's dying."

"No he's not. Do you see Death here? Nope. Because the doctors took care of it. Modern medicine, man. It's something else. Hey, do you play Candy Crush?"

Pestilence shook his head. "I don't have a cell phone."

Dis looked up briefly in surprise. "For real? Oh man. Well... uh, good for you, I guess."

Pestilence reached out and touched Mark's face. His brow furrowed in his sleep, and the heart monitor began beeping more rapidly. In an instant, the door flew open and a nurse rushed in. She pushed Pestilence out of the way without a second thought and bent over Mark to check on him.

Mark's eyes fluttered open. "Sheila?" he gasped.

"You're okay," said the nurse, patting his chest. "It's just me. You're just fine. We're taking good care of you."

"Where's Sheila?"

"She went home, Mr. Horowitz. She'll be back first thing tomorrow, though, I'm sure."

Mark reached up weakly. "Could you stay with me?"

Disconnection grinned at Pestilence and wiggled his eyebrows. The nurse's pager began beeping. She pulled her cell phone from her pocket, checked it, and shook her head. "I'm sorry, Mr. Horowitz. I'm a bit busy right now, but I'll come back shortly." She began texting on her phone, and walked out of the room with her eyes focused on the screen.

Pestilence and Disconnection looked at each other.

"It's incredible, isn't it? People." Disconnection paused to take a selfie. "You bring them war, famine, floods, plagues, whatever, and somehow, they always find the silver lining. They unite and they grow stronger. They feed off each other. But then, you give them access to information, and it all falls apart. Knowledge is power, and power is corrupting. Humans love information, and they love stimulation. They crave amusement. Their natural curiosity is all-consuming, and they poison themselves with it. Give them access to the media, to each other, and everything good about them evaporates in a cloud of liking and sharing and inflating their sorry little egos for some virtual validation. You shrink their world, and you shrink their very souls. Isn't it beautiful? Isn't it easy?"

Pestilence took a few shaky steps back. "You... you're a monster. That's not how we do this. That's not how we do any of this! We're supposed to cause them hardship, not... not turn them against each other!"

Disconnection stood, his face illuminated by the screen of his phone, his grin manic in the electronic glow. "Wanna know a secret?" he whispered.

Pestilence shook his head, rooted to the ground, unable to run. Disconnection took a few steps toward him, his phone beeping softly over Mark's heart monitor, and spoke anyway.

"...I'm really good at Flappy Bird."

The Fifth Horseman has spoken.