Few things upset me more than blind prejudice. Growing up as a white, middle-class girl never prepared me for any type of discrimination. Yes, I grew up privileged. Yes, I continue to live an advantaged life, free from bigotry – until I adopted Gabby. It’s hard to believe my dog changed that forever.
You see, Gabby is a pit bull. My experiences with pit bulls before Gabby were very limited. I had only heard the horror stories and myths. I even believed them myself. When I started working with dog rescues, that all changed. I’ve met hundreds of pit bulls and none of them live up to their negative stereotypes. In fact, they are the complete opposite. Pit bulls are playful, intelligent, big goof balls, very responsive to training and above all, eager to please, which sadly makes them easy targets for abuse and exploitation. It breaks my heart when people cross the street to avoid us. If they only knew that Gabby not only loves other dogs, but kids too. She lets them pull on her ears, use her as a pillow and she gently takes treats from their little hands. She also lives with four cats and helps abused dogs learn to trust humans again. But sadly, some people just flee in fear or tell me I’m a monster for having her in my home.
When I learned about James Sak, a 65-year-old disabled Vietnam veteran and retired police officer, I was equally outraged and saddened. Sak was forced to relinquish his dog, Snickers, a 5-year-old pit bull service dog he needs after suffering a debilitating stroke that left him confined to a wheelchair and with no feeling on the right side of his body.
“I can’t believe they didn’t even try to talk to us. They just said, ‘No. You’re not having him. He’s outlawed in this town,’” Sak recalled.
“I have spasms on my right side where the leg gives out whenever I get upset or try to do too much. When Snickers sees that my hand is moving, he sits down by me right away and waits for me to tell him what to do. Usually, he goes to get my wife so she can help me get back in the chair. Without him, I feel lost,” he said.
“I was a policeman for 32 years. I understand there’s black and white, but there’s also a gray area, where you have to use your head. They’re not using their heads,” he asserted.
Sak and his wife, Peggy Leifer, moved to Aurelia, Iowa, in November to live near Leifer’s ailing mother. Snickers – who is certified with the National Service Animal Registry – accompanied them. For two years, Sak worked with Aileen Eviota, a physical therapist with the University of Illinois Medical Center in Chicago, Ill., to improve his functional capabilities and live more independently through the use of a service dog. Not all dogs have the ability to pass such rigorous testing.
“Snickers has been individually trained to assist James with tasks which mitigate his disability, including walking, balance and retrieving items around the house,” said Eviota.
Because Snickers works as a service animal for a disabled person, the dog is protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and should not be subject to the breed ban, according to 2010 guidance issued by the Department of Justice (DOJ).
“The DOJ does not believe that it is either appropriate or consistent with the ADA to defer to local laws that prohibit certain breeds of dogs based on local concerns that these breeds may have a history of unprovoked aggression or attacks,” the guidelines state. “Such deference would have the effect of limiting the rights of persons with disabilities under the ADA who use certain service animals based on where they live rather than on whether the use of a particular animal poses a direct threat to the health and safety of others.”
On Dec. 14, the Aurelia Town Council told Sak that he must remove his dog from the city limits by the end of the day. Snickers is currently being boarded at facility outside of the city limits.
“I lost my helper,” said Sak. “I’m not looking for special treatment, I just want to be safe and I need my service dog for that.”
“Without Snickers here to assist, I can’t leave Jim unattended,” said Leifer. “The whole reason we moved to Aurelia was to care for my 87-year-old mother, who is ill. I drive across town to care for her three times a day. Jim has already fallen once and we had to call 911. I live in fear that he will have another stroke or worse. We need his service dog back.”
Sak is a member of the Fraternal Order of Police – Chicago Lodge 7 (retired from the 12th District of the Chicago Police Department) and the American Legion Post 390 of Aurelia (Vietnam Veteran, Army Signal Corps). He is pursuing legal action against the city of Aurelia so he can be reunited with Snickers.
Animal Farm Foundation, an organization dedicated to securing equal treatment and opportunity for pit bull dogs is committed to assisting Sak with securing funding for this case. There is a hearing scheduled at the end of this month.
Kim Wolf, community engagement specialist for Animal Farm Foundation said officer Sak “dedicated his life to serving others and protecting the public. Now it’s our turn to protect him. We are hopeful that the federal court will recognize this service dog as essential for keeping Officer Sak safe and out of harm. This dog has been extensively trained and has already proven capable of assisting with these tasks, without posing any risk to public safety. The dog’s physical appearance has no effect on his ability to keep Officer Sak safe and secure.”
For more information, contact Wolf at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Lori Fusaro has been voted the best portrait photographer by FoxTV three years in a row and is a proud member of PPA and HeARTspeak. She lives in Culver City with her husband, four cats and a dog. Contact: Lori@FusaroPhotography.com, FusaroPhotography.com. Follow her on Twitter: @FusaroPhoto.