Practical pets...
January 1, 2009 4:44 PM   Subscribe

A New York Times article about the debate over just what kinds of animals count as guide animals. Horses? Monkeys? Parrots? Ducks? Who gets to determine what counts as a service animal, and how?

There's Panda, the miniature guide horse who lives four times as long as a guide dog and is less likely to chase cars. (More information on Panda, along with video of her being trained, is here.)

My favorite is Sadie, the assistance parrot, who talks her owner, a man with bipolar disorder, down from psychotic episodes. From the article:
Sadie rides around town on Eggers’s back in a bright purple backpack specially designed to hold her cage. When he gets upset, she talks him down, saying: “It’s O.K., Jim. Calm down, Jim. You’re all right, Jim. I’m here, Jim.” She somehow senses when he is getting agitated before he even knows it’s happening. “I still go off on people sometimes, but she makes sure it never escalates into a big problem,” he told me, grinning bashfully at Sadie. “Now when people make me mad I just give them the bird,” he said, pulling up his sleeve and flexing his biceps, which is covered with a large tattoo of Sadie.
There are also guide monkeys (see here for a no-registration-necessary description) and, according to the article, guide pigs and guide ducks as well. The story doesn't mention what guide ducks do... I wish I knew!
posted by shaun uh (16 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I have a friend who uses a service dog that can detect oncoming seizures. She worked at a women's retreat and at first they responded that it wasn't the same as a dog for the blind and they asked her to leave her dog at home. Being the brilliant diplomat she is she first noted that that probably wasn't legal, and second, perhaps they should take a few days to consider the repercussions. Wouldn't they rather she prepare for an oncoming seizure than expect staff to deal with it while it was occurring? Later that day, management called her in and apologized profusely. I suspect a phone call involving billable minutes was involved.
posted by Toekneesan at 5:03 PM on January 1, 2009

The story doesn't mention what guide ducks do...

Lead people to bread crumbs.
posted by The Whelk at 5:34 PM on January 1, 2009 [2 favorites]

Helper monkeys are great, unless you get a capuchin like the one in Monkey Shines.
posted by bergeycm at 5:46 PM on January 1, 2009

The story doesn't mention what guide ducks do...
Lead people to bread crumbs.
posted by The Whelk at 8:34 PM on January 1 [+] [!]

There's an Aflac joke in here. Or a, 'If it quacks like a duck, it must be a service animal' joke.
posted by etaoin at 5:48 PM on January 1, 2009

Since we're expanding definitions of guide animal here, I would like to officially pitch my hat into the ring. I'm reliable, street-smart, and can accompany you on plane flights, subway cars, and public buses. I rarely chase after cars, and you need only scoop my poo into a plastic bag every now and again.
posted by ford and the prefects at 6:13 PM on January 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

My guide ferret is broken, he only leads me to the pile of socks stashed under the bed.

But seriously, really loved that parrot story. Sounds like his parrot is improving his quality of life and isn't that the point of services animals in general?
posted by sundri at 7:43 PM on January 1, 2009

A guide wolverine would surely garner respect...
posted by fairmettle at 11:14 PM on January 1, 2009

The story about the psychotic fellow with the parrot that keeps him calm is particularly remarkable. This is someone who was in and out of the penal system for threatening and assaulting people, who has made the transition to being a functional member of society by taking care of a parrot that tells him to be calm when he gets angry. It boggles the mind that anyone would oppose something like this on "public health" concerns. Which is more of a safety risk: the parrot, or the burly psychotic man who suffers from "homicidal feelings"?

Our bias in favour of dogs as service animals is obviously cultural more than anything - the British empire brought the dog with it everywhere it went. Muslims believe that dogs are unclean and have actually argued that being forced to permit dogs on their premises is a violation of their freedom of religion. They are in their current position as "man's best friend" merely by being the hunting pet of choice centuries ago, and almost none of us actually use our dogs to hunt now. Let's face it: sure they can chase things and bite things, but they're stupid and they don't clean themselves and they'll eat anything.

I say bring on the guide menagerie, should keep city life interesting.
posted by mek at 11:54 PM on January 1, 2009

There is something different about dogs, beyond cultural bias. They've been living with humans for a very long time, probably longer than any other domesticated animal. I've heard it argued that the reason the human sense of smell is so poor is that dogs (well, domesticated wolves) took over the role of detecting approaching predators so long ago it became redundant in humans. There's also the idea that mankind was able to spread around the world because dogs helped protect us from predators and hunt, and that without dogs we just wouldn't exist the way we do today - wolves and humans domesticated each other.

That said, it would be difficult to replace Sadie the parrot with a dog.

(Not a dog owner. Also: NOT CATIST)
posted by BinaryApe at 3:45 AM on January 2, 2009

So, how long before people are marrying their guide animals? What have we come to.
posted by IvoShandor at 6:13 AM on January 2, 2009

In October, a man in Portland, Ore., took his dog on a bus, claiming that it was a service animal. While getting off the bus, the dog killed another dog that was riding as a “comfort animal.” (In Portland, comfort animals are allowed on public transportation.) A few days later, an editorial appeared in The Oregonian with the headline “Take the Menagerie Off the Bus.” It opened with: “No offense, ferret lovers. … Your pet … may offer emotional support. But it shouldn’t be roaming the aisles of a … bus or train.”
I don't understand, Portland.
posted by desjardins at 8:25 AM on January 2, 2009

BindaryApe, dogs are not domesticated wolves; they are genetically distinct, and very probably split off from wolves before they were domesticated. One writer [pdf] puts it this way:

Sometime between 20,000 and 100,000 years ago, a few wolves began scavenging around human encampments. Since that first association, humans have exerted great selective pressure (some consciously, some not) for canines that are less skittish, territorial, predatory and aggressive than wolves. Research has determined that the hormonal systems of canines with these traits (i.e. dogs) are different from those of wild canids.

Those hormonal differences cause profound differences in behavior; they result in an animal that never really behaves like a mature canine. In a nutshell, a dog is a wolf in arrested development; they act very much like adolescent wolves their whole lives. An adolescent wolf is playful, adaptable, and able to form bonds with other species, takes directions readily, and is far less territorial and predatory than an adult wolf-all traits that make dogs such delightful companions.

As an adolescent wolf's hormonal system reaches maturity (between 18 months and three years), it begins to exhibit all those normal adult behaviors that make wolves so difficult to deal with in captivity

So, while many taxonomists recognize the dog as a subspecies of the wolf and the genetics of the two are quite similar, it is a misconception that these facts prove the wolf and the dog are the same animal. When hybrid breeders and enthusiasts argue that wolves and dogs are essentially the same because they share so much common genetic material, stop to consider this: ninety-eight and four-tenths percent (98.4%) of the genetic material in humans and chimpanzees is identical, yet our behaviors are radically different. Certainly no one would promote crossbreeding humans and chimpanzees as a way to create an animal that is "the best of both worlds."

I don't buy the sense of smell thing. Our crappy sense of smell is directly related to our sad little short noses, compared to a dog's*, which is longer and has many more smell receptors. That's been true waaaay back in our gene line, so no.

*prior to us breeding them for short noses

As for companion animals, if it's proven to help someone, I'm all for it. Companion elephants might be hard to keep in your yard though.
posted by emjaybee at 10:32 AM on January 2, 2009

Yeah, one wonders why you almost never see guide hyena's. i mean, you would -never- bump into another person again, ever!
posted by marcelm at 11:21 AM on January 2, 2009

I dunno, Ford. You may have some competition.
posted by the latin mouse at 12:28 PM on January 2, 2009

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