Pet friendly? I’m sorry, I don’t know what that means. That’s what happens when you live in Miami. Except for a small enclave on South Beach, pets get nowhere near their due––not compared to Portland, anyway.

Tuesday, the New York Times reported that Portland, Oregon’s neo-urban Pearl District has trouble keeping its pet owners out of the Safeways and the Whole Foods. When Oregon’s food safety division compiled its animals-in-food-stores reports last year, it found a disproportionate number of the 600 complaints came from this area.

Apparently, pets win in this “dog crazy” enclave. But how they do so is more surprising to me than anything else.

Apparently, many owners claim their pets are service animals, thereby skirting the “no pets where there’s food” rules we all know so well. And there’s a sizable contingent of citizens that doesn’t like it––including the guy behind the meat counter.

According to a Whole Foods deli worker quoted in the NYT: “It’s this weird gray area...Like when you see little Foo Foo in someone’s purse, you know that’s not a service animal.”

Problem is, it’s not always so straightforward. Remember this week’s post on hypoglycemia alert dogs? “Foo Foo-the-purse-dog” is just as likely to alert as any Lab or shepherd. Which raises the question: What the heck defines a service dog, anyway? According to the NYT piece:

“The federal Food Code, based on language from the Americans with Disabilities Act, describes service animals as aiding people with physical disabilities and performing certain tasks the disabled person cannot, like those provided by Seeing Eye dogs. The code says, too, that a service animal is not considered a pet.

Yet the disability law also limits the extent to which a private business can question people about their disabilities and the service an animal provides, and there is no requirement under state or federal law that an animal be licensed or somehow labeled as a service animal.

A new poster created by the state says, ‘Animals that provide support or companionship are not regarded as service animals.’ Still, the limits on questions a business can ask could leave the door open to interpretation and abuse.”

As you might expect, I have no trouble accepting that pets be allowed in stores where food is sold. In fact, I lobby for it whenever I get the chance. After all, that sniffly kid with his hands all over the deli meat samples? That’s where the real danger lies. I’d welcome a poop on aisle five over that kind of health threat.

That’s why I don’t quite get it when public health officials condemn the presence of animals in food establishments. Sure, it grosses some people out. But there are plenty of human behaviors that gross ME out. Which is why I can’t help but wonder: Are regs like this science based? Or mere cultural construct?

Yet the problem raised by Portland’s Pearl District is more complex than that. Because instead of enacting legislation to allow pets’ entry to restaurants and food-based establishments, some citizens here (and elsewhere, I’m sure) choose to effectively flout the law by stretching the concept of a service pet to extremes––extremes that may adversely affect those who have no choice but to rely on their animals for assistance in their daily lives.

Think of it this way: It’s sort of like seeing a perfectly able person parking in the handicapped zone with the prominent blue permit dangling from their rearview mirror. If you know abuse of the permits to be rampant in your area, you’re more likely to question a non-wheelchair bound person’s disability––and look at them askance...or ask for an explanation (I’ve seen that happen).

“Pets” are not “service animals” according to our ADA laws––whether they’re certified as “therapy pets” or not. But the converse is true: service animals can be pets. The shades of gray inherent to such a distinction is what leads most of us to back off the debate and let someone else do the heavy lifting when it comes to defining “service animal.”

For my part, I’ll happily decline to take part in that definition process. I will, however, work on the food side of the equation. Because not only is the zoonotic potential of animals my area of expertise, I also happen to believe in changing hearts and minds...and laws––not in doing exactly as I please should it come at someone else’s expense.

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Check out my USAToday column today, a reprisal of my euthanasia post from last week.

And my DailyVet post on hurricane preparedness how-to's.