Grandma & Grandpa's Farm

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Ferret Better or Worst

Service and Assist Animals on Transit

To Assist or Not to Assist, That is the Question.

Gyno lost his transit pass last April for reasons that still haven't been made clear. Gyno (pronounced Gino - "JEE-no") is Frances Woodard's albino ferret. I nearly said "pet ferret" but Gyno (image to right being held by Ms Woodard -- image from Ottawa Citizen) is a working ferret that Ms Woodard uses to give her freedom of movement.

Gyno's duties are not those of a Guide Dog that most are probably familiar with or even another service animal such as might be seen leading a person in a wheel chair by helping to pull it or by opening doors for someone physically disabled. Gyno is the sort of assist animal whose work is a bit more invisible like a number of disabilities and handicaps also tend to be.

Here is a list* of the many types of service animals:

  • Guide dogs (or dog guides) for persons who have visual impairments.
  • Service animals (e.g., dogs, cats, monkeys, pigs) for persons who have physical disabilities.
  • Hearing and signal animals (e.g., dogs and cats) for persons who are deaf or have hearing impairments.
  • Seizure-response/alert animals (e.g., dogs, cats, birds) that alert individuals with seizure disorders to oncoming seizures and/or help the individual during and following the seizure.
  • Emotional support animals (e.g., dogs and cats) that provide assistance for persons with severe emotional impairments or mental disabilities.

Dogs are by far the most common type of service animal. However, cats, pot bellied pigs, monkeys, and birds also are trained as service animals. Some dogs also are cross-trained to provide a combination of assistance, such as guiding a visually impaired person while pulling his or her wheelchair.

Granted that list is from the US, but it is a functional one rather than a legal one and so I think it is useful here. The ferret fits into the "Emotional support animals" category in that it provides emotional support to Ms Woodard when she is out of the comfort zone of her home. Having the ferret to focus on allows her to cope with the panic attacks of anxiety she would suffer. Petting and stroking it calms her down. The ferret is kept in a harness intended for the purpose and intended to be escape proof for a ferret and the ferret is to be kept in its carrying bag at all times while on the bus.

Ms Woodard went and got the proper pass to allow her to take the ferret on public transit last fall as a working animal. She has a note from her psychiatrist stating that "an assistance animal, specifically a ferret should accompany her at all times when she is in public, especially on transportation."** Ms Woodard also "had Gyno assessed by an animal-behaviour consultant in May and has a letter from that says Gyno is well-behaved and could not possibly escape from the harness he's put in when he's on the bus."**

The reason given for having given the pass was that it was at the discretion of the issuing officer based on her assessing on what was done in other jurisdictions across Canada while the reason given for taking it away states that what was done in other jurisdictions does not apply in Ottawa and that having the animal on public transit could pose a danger to passengers and driver for the reason of precautions that Ms Woodard had accepted as provision for her being able to use transit. IE if the driver or any passengers were allergic she would get off and wait for the next bus or train; the ferret would have to remain on the special harness for the whole journey and would have to remain in its special carrying bag.***.

Now considering that in other jurisdictions of cities the size of Ottawa and larger which allow animals -- and not even service or assist animals but simply pets -- on public transit as long as they are in appropriate cage or kennel that can sit on the patron's lap or at their feet -- without worry or concern for their drivers, why should this be such a problem in Ottawa?

This is from Vancouver's Translink's FAQ page on Using the System and whether you can bring an pet on public transit:****

Q Can I bring my pet on transit?

A Yes, in most cases. Pets including dogs, cats, rabbits and small fur-bearing or feathered pets are allowed, as long as they are in small hand-held cages. The container must fit on your lap or at your feet. We suggest off-peak times are best for travelling with your pet. The bus operator, at his or her discretion, may not permit your pet on board if there is a concern for the safety or comfort of your fellow passengers.

I wonder how much of the taking away of the pass has to do with a statement by the president of the union that represents the bus drivers, André Cornellier who said he doesn't think ferrets should count as service animals?

"Seeing-eye dogs and hearing-impaired dogs are recognized under the law, but I don't think a ferret is considered under the human-rights code," he said.

Personally I do not think that the driver's union should be steering this decision much but I suspect there is some weight behind that statement.

I also wonder if there is any connection to another article I read from Ottawa Sun News Columnist, Susan Sherring, "Pet issue dogs public transit" July 22, 2008? "There is a movement to allow dogs, cats, and other small animals on public transit."*****

The plan has the support of Mayor Larry O'Brien and is being put forward by the local chapter of the Responsible Dog Owners of Canada. The point they make is that if guide dogs are allowed on public transit, he can't see any reason "...that domestic pets should not be allowed on public transit under the right conditions"*****

I suspect that the bus drivers' union is not happy with other domestic animals being allowed on the buses in addition to the allowed guide dogs and this is being connected with assistance animals of sorts other than the traditional guide dog for the blind being allowed on the buses.

Of course that is being quite cynical about things. There are legitimate concerns about people with allergies and dangers to toddlers sticking fingers too close to snapping dogs or ferrets. There are moves being made to ban strong perfumes and colognes from public transit too for there are passengers and drivers with sensitivities to them... but wait... these are things to allow people with hidden disabilities -- allergies and asthma -- to ride public transit safely. Perfume and cologne are not aides to disabled people. Assist and service animals should have higher priority. There are times when someone with an assist animal might be asked to take the next bus perhaps due to driver allergy just as when the spaces reserved for movement aides are all in use.

In the U.S. you are not required to have certificate of training and in fact people can not ask you to produce it before providing service to you if you have an assist animal just as they can not ask you for paperwork proving whether you are disabled or not. That is regardless of whether or not the State has certification programs. Now we do have different laws, but there are reasons behind the American ones*. They do make some sense. There is reason to have certification for some sorts of service and assist animals, but others do not need the same sort of training. Some like the ferret in question mostly just need to be of good nature and in good harness. Their job isn't to look out for stray cars or missing stairways -- their job is just to help assure the bearer that all is all right. I hate to think what the stress of all this is doing to Ms Woodard.

~ Darrell


*"Assisting Passengers" RITA U.S. Department of Transportation | Research and Innovative Technology Administration -- National Transportation Library

**"Ottawa transit refuses to reinstate pet ferret's bus pass" Laura Drake -- Ottawa Citizen, July 23, 2008

"Ferret barred from Ottawa buses; disabled owner files complaint" CBC News, July 23, 2008.

***Link to a PDF file of the Letter from OC Transpo to Frances Woodard on May 6, 2008 on the site.

****"Can I bring my pet on transit?" Using The System, Frequently Asked Questions -- TransLink - South Coast British Coliumbia Transit Authority

*****"Pet issue dogs public transit" Susan Sherring, News Columnists -- Ottawa Sun, July 22, 2008

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