There’s A Rat In The Audience (And It’s Not the Critic)

A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Ed (subscription required) may have implications for arts organizations if some lawsuits and other efforts are successful.

Colleges across the country are being faced with students demanding that they be allowed to bring cats, dogs, snakes, rats, ferrets and tarantulas into dorm rooms and classrooms with the idea that they are service animals. Rather than claiming a physical disability, they are saying the animals provide “psychiatric service.” (I wonder though if claiming an animal that causes anxeity in everyone around you can be considered a comfort aide.)

A few students who have had their requests denied have filed suits under the Americans with Disabilities Act. The ADA “defines a service animal as ‘any guide dog, signal dog, or other animal individually trained to do work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability.'”

Some animals are trained to provide comfort and direction to people with agoraphobia and schizophrenia by their very nature and presence. As such, they serve a passive role so it can be argued that the ADA encompasses animals that don’t do specific tasks. Some groups are doing just that asking the Department of Justice to revise regulations to include such activities.

For the most part, courts have ruled with the idea that an animal must provide active service. There is at least one court that has ruled that a person could keep a comfort animal despite the no-pets clause in a rental lease.

The idea of needing animals to help one cope with all situations is spreading. Apparently people have tried to board airplanes claiming goldfish as service animals. (At least they didn’t want to bring snakes on a plane!)

The instances of people needing comfort animals is not isolated either. Rutgers University “received five requests to accommodate a psychiatric-service animal in a single year – three cats, one dog, and a snake.”

This is just something of which to be aware. People may start to appear at your box office wanting to attend a show with an animal that helps them cope with being out in public or even the subject matter of the performance. And it may not be accompanied by a dog in a service cape.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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