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Guide Dog Ban At Zoo Challenged: Policy Angers Blind Woman

Editor's Note: Editors note: The following article was published in the Sacramento Bee on November 18, 1999.

Mary Dignans Saturday was off to a cheerful start. A visit to the California State Railroad Museum, then lunch at La Bou. But when she tried to take her 8-year-old nephew to the Sacramento Zoo, Dignan was turned away because she is blind and uses a guide dog.

I wasn't embarrassed. I was angry, Dignan said Wednesday at her Pocket-area home as her 50-pound Labrador retriever, April, sat at her feet. Dignan, who is trained as a lawyer, isn't going away quietly. She has fired off a letter to zoo officials and sparked a discussion on an Internet chat site for guide dog users.

I'm not interested in suing. I mean, I am a lawyer and I know what litigation does to people. I'm more interested in sitting down with the zoo and saying, Look, lets sit down and talk about this. Dignan added: I want better access for me and my dog and I want that access to be compatible with their need to protect their animals and consistent with federal laws that guarantee rights of access to persons with disabilities.

The zoo, however, has not returned her phone calls. A zoo official said late Wednesday that the zoo may have to change its policy to avoid violating the Americans with Disabilities Act.

If push comes to shove, the law is that you have to allow them (guide dogs) in, said Jim Schnormeier, the zoo curator.

The current Sacramento Zoo policy is to house visiting guide dogs in a kennel and provide a human companion for the blind person. Dignan said that is unacceptable because it would limit her effort to be independent.

The incident involving Dignans guide dog opens a window into often-complex access issues for the blind and the internal debate at many zoos over how they can obey federal law on guide dog issues without upsetting their animals.

Asked if there had been any instances of dogs disturbing zoo animals, Schnormeier cited a time when a stray dog roamed onto the grounds, though he said he couldn't remember details of the incident and that it was not a service dog. Questioned further, Schnormeier said he had not heard of a case at any zoo where a guide dog had bothered animals.

Even within the blind community there is a deep division over the use of guide dogs and just how much public access they should get. Those differences were apparent Wednesday when Bryan Bashin, executive director of the Society for the Blind in Sacramento, replied that he didn't have a problem with the zoos restrictive policy when asked about the incident involving Dignan. I think its appropriate, Bashin said. The law says guide dogs can go anywhere, but there are areas where they are rightly limited. I will fight for anyone's right to take a guide dog anywhere, but there are a couple of weird exceptions.

But some top zoos have allowed guide dogs for decades and many zoos throughout the country have dropped restrictions in recent years, especially after a woman using a service dog for her epilepsy was not allowed at the San Diego Zoo. The woman filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice, and the San Diego Zoo changed its policy to allow guide dogs. The American Zoo and Aquarium Association estimates that up to 75 percent of its 154 member zoos allow guide dogs. A few years ago, this was a huge debate, said Jane Ballentine, the associations director of public affairs. Its a very tough call. Obviously you want people to come to the zoo and enjoy themselves. On the other hand, you really have to be aware of the safety of the visitors and the animals."

On Saturday, zoo officials told Dignan that her guide dog would frighten the flamingos. I really wonder about this stuff about the flamingos, Dignan said. To me it sounds like a bunch of hooey.

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