C-Tran riders stretch definition of service animal

Transit agency's verification policy can go only so far

By Eric Florip, Columbian transportation & environment reporter

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When a No. 71 C-Tran bus pulled up to a stop on Highway 99 this month, the driver encountered what might be called a creative interpretation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

According to dispatch logs, a man attempted to board the bus with an iguana. On his head. He claimed the lizard was a service animal.

The driver asked the two questions he's supposed to under federal law: Is that a service animal? (The man said yes.) And, What service does that animal provide? When the man wouldn't provide an answer to the second question, he and his iguana weren't allowed to board the bus, according to C-Tran.

C-Tran policy allows service animals on the bus, but the agency can't ask for a permit or other documentation. That leaves drivers at the mercy of something of an honor system as more and more people test the limits of the law, officials and riders say.

"It's difficult to know which ones are service animals and which ones aren't," said Walt Gordon, C-Tran's passenger service manager. "If they choose not to be truthful, we have no recourse."

In addition to dogs, Gordon said he's heard of birds, snakes and even miniature horses being used as service animals elsewhere. The U.S. Department of Justice recently updated its ADA rules to define service animals as only dogs or horses — not pets or "comfort animals." But those more restrictive rules don't apply to transit, where the Department of Transportation has jurisdiction, Gordon said.

Vancouver resident Harry Kiick has been a regular C-Tran rider with his service dog Sasha for the past 11 years. Kiick, who lives with an uncontrolled seizure disorder, said he's seen a dramatic increase in the number of riders with animals during that time.

The majority of those animals are well-behaved and controlled, Kiick said. But some, including "lots of cats" and a few birds, appear to stretch the definition of a service animal, he said.

"There are people that get on the bus with their pets, and call it a service animal so they can get on the bus," Kiick said.

At first, Kiick experienced some ups and downs of his own with Sasha, a German shepherd mix. The dog hadn't been on a bus or a boarding platform before, and getting used to it took some time, he said. And sometimes other dogs are "not ready" to see another animal on the bus at the same time, Kiick said.

Sasha isn't the only service dog that has learned the ropes on C-Tran buses. At least one local organization has used the agency's fleet to train its own service dogs in recent years, said C-Tran public affairs manager Jim Quintana.

Kiick rides fixed-route buses and C-Van, C-Tran's reservation-based service. He volunteers at Legacy Salmon Creek Medical Center and has served C-Tran in various capacities. Kiick currently chairs the C-Tran Citizen Advisory Committee; he and Sasha are regulars at C-Tran board meetings.

Kiick said he'd be unable to do any of that without access to public transportation. The same is true for others with disabilities and service animals, he added.

Sasha has a vest and badge identifying her as such. In recent months, Kiick said he's noticed more people asking him about how to get a service animal certified — many with genuine intentions, some perhaps not.

"I think we're on an upward trend now," Kiick said. "I think it's going to continue."