Service dogs welcomed in most Costa Rican restaurants

March 8, 2015

When Sarah and her poodle Ashley arrived at a popular steakhouse in La Fortuna, in northern Costa Rica, they were hoping to satisfy their hunger and get some relief from the sun’s heat. But as soon as they took a seat at a table under the shade of the restaurant’s front awning, they were asked to leave.

Sarah asked to speak with the manager, who said they were welcome to stay, but they had to sit at a picnic table behind the restaurant, which was in direct sunlight. Disappointed, they left.

It shouldn’t have happened. Ashley the poodle was trained and certified in the United States to recognize if her owner, Sarah, is going to have a seizure. Sarah is accustomed to traveling everywhere with Ashley.

“Up to the point of the La Fortuna restaurant, and one other restaurant in San José, near the airport Holiday Inn, I’ve had a very accepting, and welcoming experience in Costa Rica,” Sarah, who asked that we not use her last name, said.

The rejection came as a surprise, considering the permissiveness of a law regarding service animals in the U.S. Costa Rica hasn’t quite caught up.

In 1990, U.S. President George H.W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) into law. This U.S. federal law allows people with disabilities to take their service animals anywhere, and it does not require the service animal to wear a vest or a tag or other identification. All the owner has to do is say, “It’s a service animal,” say what work or task it performs, and the animal must be admitted.

The 2010 U.S. ADA legislation defines a service animal as “any dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability.” Some state and local laws define service animal more broadly. In some areas of the U.S., snakes, lizards, chickens, pigeons and rodents have been declared service animals, allowing them to ride public transportation, live in apartments and enter private businesses.

In Costa Rica, the laws have yet to define “service animal.” In fact, up until 2008, the term “perro guía” (“seeing-eye dog” or “guide dog”) was the only animal written in to legislation concerning disabilities. The 2008 legislation, Law 8661, introduced a broader term than guide dog: “assistance must be offered through humans or animals or intermediaries, i.e. sign language professionals, guides or readers, to facilitate access to public places.”

While the language seems extremely vague, the government-appointed National Council for Special Education and Rehabilitation (CNREE) states that this law allows for broader definition of animal than “guide dog.”

“This law … refers to the use of animal assistance in general, and not specifically for people with visual disabilities, but for people with disabilities who require animal assistance,” the CNREE states.

So the La Fortuna steakhouse was in the wrong, acting against Costa Rican law by not permitting Sarah and Ashley to eat in the restaurant. Curious about whether this was a singular incident, I called a few more places around Costa Rica to ask whether a service animal would be permitted. At each restaurant, the person who answered the phone put me on hold to consult with someone else. The answer was always the same though: There would be no problem at all.

Many restaurants in Costa Rica are seemingly accepting of service dogs. I wonder, though, how accepting they would be of service iguanas or snakes?

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