Steve Dale, USA WEEKEND contributing editor, follows a sad story in Iowa.
Jim Sak is a Vietnam veteran, a retired Chicago cop of 32 years and, maybe most heroic of all, a guy willing to move from his beloved Chicago to small-town Aurelia, Iowa, solely to help out his ailing 87-year-old mother-in-law.
And Jim understands health problems: Back in 2008 he suffered a severe stroke. Like an increasing number of stroke victims and people with physical challenges, he has a service dog to help him out. His friendly, well-trained dog is named Snickers.
Snickers assists Jim in balancing himself and, if he falls, Snickers helps Jim get to his feet. Snickers resembles a pit bull (no one knows for sure what Snickers’ lineage is). As it happens, Aurelia, Iowa, has a pit bull ban.
Immediately after Jim and his wife, Peggy, moved to Aurelia last November, the official welcome wagon from the city was a request that the dog high-tail it out of town.
“We had no idea about a breed ban when we moved here,” says Peggy. “Besides, Jim would never have considered giving up his best friend.”
The non-profit Animal Farm Foundation, which advocates for pit bull-type dogs, interceded. Animal Farm pointed out that part pit bull or not, it doesn’t matter. The federal government’s Americans with Disabilities Act is very clear that breed (or mix of breeds) isn’t a factor for working dogs providing assistance to people.
Regardless, city officials exiled Snickers from town for two weeks, until the case went to court. That’s when the story began to receive national attention.
Jim and Peggy were touched by responses from people they didn’t personally know; some drove in from all over the Midwest to express support at the December hearing. The result of that hearing: U.S. District Court Judge Mark W. Bennett granted the motion for preliminary injunction for Snickers to be returned immediately to Jim. The judge’s comments were unambiguous in support of any breed or mix, including pit bull-type dogs, working as service dogs.
The town’s officials aren’t letting the matter go. Technically, the hearing was only preliminary, so the city has the right to go back to court. And it now is exercising that right.
Attorney Sharon Malheiro of the DavisBrown Law Firm of Des Moines is representing Jim and Peggy pro bono. “It was my hope – based on the federal law, for starters, but also on judge Bennett’s ruling – that whatever else needed to be resolved could be done out of court. We’re honestly not sure what’s at issue.”
Peggy says, “Jim can barely stand that, yet again, they want to take his dog away. Snickers gives Jim a feeling of independence, but the relationship is so much more. Here’s this tough ex-cop – and I am here to tell you Jim is tough – this dog makes Jimmy happy in way I can’t even explain. This dog is Jim’s heart. Snickers is like an anti-depressant drug.”
At this moment Jim cannot speak for himself; he’s hospitalized in Sioux City after undergoing several rounds of chemotherapy for tonsil cancer.
Peggy, clearly holding back tears adds, “I don’t know what the town’s issue is. We’ve put up fencing and have done whatever’s been asked.”
She wonders: Does the city really believe its ordinance supersedes federal law? Or perhaps, this is a negotiating ploy so the town doesn’t have to pay for expenses Jim and Peggy have asked for. Jim’s prognosis is good, but Peggy also wonders if the town wants to be in a position to ban Snickers should Jim not recover.
Of course, it’s hard to say when the city will not say – officials refuse to comment.
When the city took away Snickers for two weeks (before the December hearing) Jim told me, “When I came back from Vietnam in ’68, they called me names and jeered at me. I feel like it’s happening all over again. What did I do? What did Snickers do to do deserve this? I want my friend back. I’ve never felt so lost.”
Steve Dale is a certified dog/cat behavior consultant and contributing editor USA WEEKEND. Steve’s a syndicated newspaper columnist and radio host, and his latest e-books are Good Dog! and Good Cat! Read more about him here.