A recent story about an unusual emotional support animal is a good reminder that some guests bring along their service animals, but it’s not easy to navigate the laws to determine whether the animal is protected under law.
Did you hear the one about the woman who tried to take her emotional support peacock on the plane with her?
There’s no punchline. That actually happened.
I’m going to give the woman the benefit of the doubt that the peacock actually does provide some sort of emotional support, but can you imagine being the airline employee who calls for the next person in line, only to be greeted by a woman with a peacock on her shoulder?
The airline denied the bird’s access to the flight, claiming in a statement to The Washington Post it had told the owner three times prior to her arrival that the peacock would not be allowed to fly. The airline explained the bird did not meet the required guidelines, such as weight and size.
The Post article states airlines are given a little more leeway with restrictions on “unusual” service animals, such as snakes (good news for Harrison Ford and Samuel L. Jackson) and other reptiles, ferrets, rodents and spiders, and must determine “whether the animal is a threat to the health and safety of others or would cause a disruption on the flight.”
Hoteliers, I don’t believe you get the same amount of wiggle room. What you do have is guidance from the Americans with Disabilities Act, which, as of March 2011, only defines dogs (and apparently miniature horses under certain conditions) that have been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for a person with a disability as a legally protected service animal. Emotional support, therapy, comfort and companion animals are not protected under the ADA. Just remember that state and local laws might provide additional protections.
Hotel staff that is unsure whether a dog qualifies as a service animal can ask two specific questions, according to ADA guidelines: Is the dog a service animal required by disability, and what work or tasks has the dog been trained to perform? ADA rules do not allow staff to ask for documentation, to request a demonstration of the dog’s tasks or to ask the guest about the nature of their disability.
The ADA requires hoteliers to allow guests with service animals to reserve any available room, regardless of whether it is a pet-friendly room. While hotels can’t charge extra an extra fee to clean hair or dander in the guestroom, they can charge the guest if the service animal causes any damage. Guests are also allowed to take service animals into self-service food lines in hotel restaurants.
That sounds simple, right? Oh yeah, don’t forget about state and local laws that might provide additional protections.
Imagine being a front-desk associate or a GM at a hotel where a guest brings in an animal other than a dog, claiming it is a type of support animal. That’s definitely not a service animal under the ADA, but are you up to date on your state or municipal laws? I don’t know about you, but I’m definitely not.
“The area is clear as mud,” said Andrea Kirshenbaum, principal at Post & Schell.
When onboarding new front-desk associates, compliance with the ADA as well as any other state or local laws regarding service/comfort/therapy animals should be part of that training, she suggested.
“When you’re doing the training, this might not be at the forefront,” she said. “But when it’s an issue, it’s really an issue and you have an animal in your lobby.”
Every now and then, we read stories in the news about people with interesting comfort animals, such as the aforementioned situation with the peacock and the airline. I imagine for most people, it gives them a chance to chuckle or shake their head. But these situations also give hoteliers a chance to wonder whether such a thing could happen to them. When that happens, it’s probably a good idea to check in with the GM and management company just to make sure they know what they should and shouldn’t do when a guest comes in with a miniature horse.
What sort of animals have you encountered working in a hotel? How did you and your staff handle it? Any advice for hoteliers as to how to navigate such a situation? Leave a comment below or contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or @HNN_Bryan.
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