PORTLAND, Ore. – Call Portland pet crazy, if you will.
"We just love 'em," said one pet owner.
But animals in grocery stores? Even owners of service dogs get "a lot of stares, a lot evil eyes," said service-dog owner Barbara Cooley.
The reason pets aren't allowed in places that serve food is because health officials say animals carry bacteria and parasites that can make people sick. The Oregon Food Safety Division receives hundreds of complaints each year about pet owners taking their animals shopping and to restaurants.
However, like guide dogs for the blind, some of these animals are protected by law to help people with disabilities. However, we discovered it's getting tougher to figure out what qualifies as a service dog.
The gray area in the law is expanding, leading some to push the limits. Despite a Food Safety campaign to discourage pets near food, you'll still find dogs in food-related public places on leashes or stashed in handbags.
"I've taken her to the movies," said one dog owner. "I've taken her to restaurants."
For shop keepers, enforcing the rules – or even trying to figure out if a dog is legitimately one used as a service dog – puts them in a tough spot.
"I don't want to be the bad guy," said Joe Harms at Jack's Market in Salem. "If somebody's going to be the bad guy – then let it be the state. I don't want to alienate a customer."
Additionally, business owners are faced with a challenge when enforcing a law banning animals except service animals from food areas. Americans with Disabilities Act guidelines for businesses "makes clear that there isn't a 'service animal certification board' so there isn't a specific certification required," said Department of Justice Spokesman Alejandro Miyar in a January interview with KATU.com. "And individuals are not required to provide proof that the animal is a service animal."
When we came across a woman with a giant dog in a local grocery story it seemed a bit suspicious. The dog was 115 pounds of scary looking animal.
"You don't see her kind in here very often," said Cooley, the owner of this dog. However, Cooley assures us "she's a service animal."
We ask Cooley what makes this dog a service animal. It turns out she has seizure disorder, which she says makes the dog a necessity.
"And you know what?" Cooley asks rhetorically. "If you were a store employee, you couldn't even ask me that question. It's against the law."
Behind the Italian Mastiff's imposing exterior, Cooley's dog Sophie turns out to be "such a sweetheart, a teddy bear," Cooley said.
Cooley has the documentation to prove she's permanently disabled. However, she said she often picks up on the angry stares from customers. She also, sometimes, has been forced into outright confrontations with store employees about Sophie's purpose.
"It was the looks on their face, before they opened their mouth," she said. "The look on their face was they were going to give me trouble."
In one recent case, the confrontation left her in tears.
"I got hit with such bad anxiety," she said. "I started having chest pain."
People upset about dogs in stores is the No. 1 complaint received by the Oregon Food Safety Division. It launched a poster campaign in 2009, about which animals are allowed. Since then - officials said - the complaints have gone down.
However, at the same time more animal owners are making reports they've been kicked out of stores unfairly, including a man with a macaw and another with a snake.
Bob Joondeph of Disability Rights Oregon said the law governing service animals like Sophie errs on the side of the animal owner.
Part of the problem, Joondeph said, is "there is no certification [that certifies all these dogs]. In fact a store owner isn't permitted by law to ask for certification."
However, store managers can enforce rules of animal behavior. Indeed, in December even TriMet banned a service dog from its LIFT van until the dog could follow commands.
"That animal is not allowed to do anything that the person can't do for themselves," Joondeph said. "So the complaints you will hear, from time to time, is 'Gee, there's an animal in the store licking the fruit.' If it's not acceptable for you to go in the store and lick the fruit, it's not acceptable for the animals to do that either."
The fight over what's permissible is not just in stores. We obtained a grainy courtroom video showing a woman and her black dog. In it, Cowlitz County Judge Stephen warns her: "Ma'am, for the future, unless I've got something from your doctor, you're not to bring that animal to court anymore."
That judge is now the subject of a federal appeal. The woman in that courtroom appealed his decision, saying the video shows she was discriminated against. Cowlitz County is the same Washington county that tightened its policies after a "comfort monkey" got loose and had to be chased down.
Usually, it's people like Barbara Cooley paying the price for others pushing the limits with their pets.
"I have a wallet card that I carry with me," Cooley said, "in case somebody wants to be a dimwit."
- Answers to commonly asked questions about service animals
- Proposed Americans with Disabilities Act rules in real time
- ADA public information, complaint line: 1 (800) 514-0301
Here's what Barbara's ADA card looks like: