On Miniature Horses, Of All Things.

A couple days ago, The New York Times ran this crazy article about unusual service animals. The first revelation: apparently, horses can be trained to assist the blind:

The woman, Ann Edie, was simply blind and out for an evening walk with Panda, her guide miniature horse… Edie isn’t the only blind person who uses a guide horse instead of a dog — there’s actually a Guide Horse Foundation that’s been around nearly a decade. The obvious question is, Why? In fact, Edie says, there are many reasons: miniature horses are mild-mannered, trainable and less threatening than large dogs. They’re naturally cautious and have exceptional vision, with eyes set far apart for nearly 360-degree range. Plus, they’re herd animals, so they instinctively synchronize their movements with others. But the biggest reason is age: miniature horses can live and work for more than 30 years. In that time, a blind person typically goes through five to seven guide dogs.

When I still lived at home we had a miniature horse for a time, and I do not remember her being particularly mild-mannered. But it’s good to find out there’s something useful she could have been trained to do. Miniature horses can’t be ridden and can’t pull any cart larger than a red wagon, so I never really figured out what the point of them was.

The whole article is interesting, and goes on to talk about: a parrot who talks a man down from his psychotic seizures; a chimpanzee trained to recognize a hypoglycemic episode and fetch sugar; and a macaque who helped his owner kick her drug habit. But all these animals, it seems, are in danger of being outlawed. The ease with which one can have their animal recognized as a “service animal” has led to system abuses by people who simply wish to keep their exotic pet legally. The A.D.A., which somewhat monitors these things, is so scared of being sued for infringing on a patient’s medical history that the only questions they’re allowed to ask about each animal are: “Is that a trained service animal?”, and “What is it trained to do?”. But it doesn’t have to ask for concrete proof on either count. Because of the abuses, the Department of Justice is considering limiting service-animals to only include dogs.

Obviously, the exotic-service-animal area is not one in which I can claim to have comprehensive knowledge. But this seems like an issue which would benefit more from case-by-case evaluation than sweeping legistlation. Obviously, it seems ridiculous to take away Edie’s horse, especially when it poses no risk to anyone else and helps her so much. But at the same time, there’s a reason that some animals are illegal, and its usually because they can be dangerous or pose a significant health risk. (This applies particularly to many species of primates, including macaques, which can carry viruses harmless to them but deadly to humans.) It seems pretty clear, though, that if an animal legitimately helps someone, and poses no threat to others, it’s ridiculous to take it away because other people are abusing the system.

Plus, this whole seeing-eye horse thing is just, you know, awesome.