By EMILY LE COZ / NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – This story ends well.
But in a perfect world, it never would have begun.
Two weeks ago, Itawamba Community College freshman Abi Thornton tried to lease a unit at Feemster Lake Apartments in Tupelo. Her friend already lived there; Abi was going to move in and split rent.
Property manager Terry Baker approved the arrangement, but he had one problem – Abi’s dog. The complex enforces a strict no-pets policy, which Baker said included Abi’s 50-pound British Labrador, Mr. Darcy. Either Abi came alone, or she didn’t come at all, Baker said.
Except that Mr. Darcy isn’t a pet. He’s a diabetic alert dog, specially trained to detect Abi’s blood sugar levels and warn her when they spike or plummet.
Abi has Type 1 Diabetes, a lifelong disease caused by the inability of the pancreas to regulate blood sugar levels. She was diagnosed at age 11 after spending days in the ICU in northwest Alabama with diabetic ketoacidosis and a blood sugar above 1,200.
Months later, she had a grand mal seizure when her blood sugar plummeted.
Since then, Abi has used a continuous glucose monitor, but it isn’t completely reliable and doesn’t alert her when she sleeps.
Mr. Darcy, though, is always accurate. And he’ll wake her from sleep if need be. Abi has had him two years. He stays by her side and quietly prompts her to check her levels by detaching a yellow baton from his leash.
After pricking her finger and testing her blood, Abi can increase her insulin drip or drink juice to prevent a serious episode.
None of this mattered to Baker, who told the Daily Journal, “That’s our policy. No pets.”
But the law is on Abi’s side. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, businesses must allow people with disabilities to bring their service animals with them.
And if those businesses have a no-pets policy, the ADA requires them to change it so that service animals are exempted.
“A service animal is not a pet,” the ADA states.
But businesses do have rights. They can require service animals to leave if they become aggressive. They also can charge a fee if the animal causes any damage, according to the ADA.
Abi’s mother, Rachel Thornton, said she tried to tell Baker about the law, but he wouldn’t listen. When she asked to speak to the property’s owner, Baker said the owner lived out of state.
Frustrated, Thornton called the Daily Journal.
“This is discrimination, and you can’t discriminate against someone’s disability,” said Thornton, an Aberdeen resident. “Legally, they are bound to allow this dog to accompany our daughter.”
A reporter confirmed the story with Baker, who reiterated the no-pets policy and called Thornton a troublemaker. He then provided the owner’s name and phone number.
The Daily Journal left a message, and within hours Paul Pickett of Mamp&P Ventures was on the phone. He called it a misunderstanding and apologized.
“That is correct that we have a no-pets policy; however, service animals are not pets under the ADA,” he said. It’s just that “you have people who want to bend the rules. We have several people a month who say, ‘This is my nervous disorder dog or my therapy dog.’ Under the ADA, that is not considered a service dog.”
The ADA defines service animals as those which have been specially trained to assist someone with a disability. But it doesn’t require those animals to be licensed or certified, and not all states or local governments do either.
The lack of standards – and lack of paperwork – means business owners have little choice but to accept someone’s claim that Fido or Fluffy is a service animal.
It becomes especially troublesome in Abi’s case where her disability isn’t immediately visible. She doesn’t use a wheelchair or wear dark glasses, she doesn’t limp or have a hearing aid.
She looks like a typical 17-year-old girl. So not all businesses readily believe her claim that sweet Mr. Darcy is a medical necessity.
“The lack of standards hurts me as a person with a legitimate need,” Abi said. “It’s been abused, and I wish they would change the law to give businesses more protection.”
Until that happens, Abi knows she must continue educating people about the law, imperfect as it may be. It’s a role she didn’t ask for, but one the friendly and well-spoken student has settled into comfortably.
Her insistence that Feemster Lake Apartments follow the law put her in touch with Pickett, who immediately recognized she had a legitimate claim.
Pickett told the Daily Journal he offered Abi a unit to rent and has since spoken to Baker about the law.
“There’s no problem,” he said.
Not anymore, at least. Abi signed a lease with her friend Friday at Feemster Lake Apartments. She’ll move in – along with Mr. Darcy – and the two will be a short walk from the ICC Tupelo campus where Abi studies elementary education.
And where Mr. Darcy helps make it possible.
Contact Emily Le Coz at (662) 678-1588 or firstname.lastname@example.org.