Town Forces Retired Cop to Give Up His Pit Bull Mix Service Dog

 |  Dec 22nd 2011  |   62 Contributions


Jim Sak and his dog, Snickers, who now has to live in a kennel outside town (Photo via <em>Chicago Sun-Times</em>)

(Update 11 a.m. Dec 22: Press release w more very helpful details follows. Among other events, Sak has fallen once since having to send him to the kennel, and 911 had to be called.)

(Update Dec 28: Thanks to Augusta Louisville and Miss Jan, we've learned that Sak will be getting his dog back for now! WGN reports that a judge granted a preliminary injunction that allows Snickers to return to Sak until the lawsuit is over. It's a step in the right direction, and I'm sure Sak will be thrilled to be reunited with his canine other half. The feeling will surely be mutual. We'll keep you posted.)

A small Iowa town has forced a retired Chicago cop and Vietnam veteran to part with the service dog who was helping him cope with a profound stroke that left him with no feeling on the right half of his body.

If Jim Sak hadn't sent 5-year-old Snickers to a kennel just outside town, the leaders of Aurelia, Iowa, could have taken the dog away and destroyed him. The town fathers had reportedly threatened this, and Sak could not take the chance with this dog who is everything to him.

The dog's crime? He is a pit-bull mix. It seems Aurelia — a town whose motto is "savor the sweet life" — banned the breed in 2008 after a pit bull bit a meter reader.

Sak wasn't here then. He and his wife, Peggy, recently moved to her hometown of 1,100 people to be closer to his ailing mother-in-law. But Sak learned that there are no exceptions. He even brought his plea to keep his dog before the Aurelia town council, but they turned him down.

I was a policeman for 32 years. I understand theres black and white, but theres also a gray area where you have to use your head. Theyre not using their heads. ... I cant believe they didnt even try to talk to us. They just said, No. Youre not having him. Hes outlawed in this town,'" Sak said in an article in the Chicago Sun-Times.

Without the dog, Sak's mother-in-law — the very person Sak moved here to help — has to help him out. Snickers has been invaluableto Sak since his stroke. I have spasms on my right side where the leg gives out whenever I get upset or try to do too much," he said. "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.

Peggy Sak said the demand to get rid of the dog was sudden, and that it has left them worried sick. They called us to a city council meeting Dec. 14 and voted 3 to 2 to make no exceptions," she said. "I had to get him out of the house by the next day. That dog has never been away from us a night in his life. Hes the sweetest, most good-natured dog youd ever want to meet.

I left the meeting and threw up on the street outside the place. I cant stop crying. Jim, being the Chicago cop, is stoic, but very depressed. Its terrible. Im afraid to leave him.

She said she is "appalled and embarrassed by the town I grew up in. They have made our lives a living hell since we got here.

Wow. Is it just me, or if Snickers is a bona fide service dog, doesn't this fly in the face of the Americans with Disabilities Act, big time? The ADA says service dogs can be of any breed, from what I know.

The Animal Farm Foundation, whose goal is to secure equal treatment for bully breeds, has hired a lawyer to represent the Sakses. The group is also paying for Snickers' board at the kennel.

Its about the injustice of this man having his service dog taken away — this man who is a Vietnam War veteran and a retired Chicago Police officer who has always given back to the community, said executive director Stacy Coleman.

This town has taken away this mans independence, his peace of mind, and his freedom to move about his house, go out in public and keep from having to go to a nursing home with 24-hour care. Hes physically in danger without his dog.

The town's website says, "Aurelia offers something for everyone!" Apparently everyone but war veterans and retired cops with strokes.

Dogsters, what do you think? Do you have to investigate a town's rules before moving in with a bully breed or bully mix? What would you do if this happened to you? If anyone knows about the ADA in relation to service dog breeds, please give us the facts.

(Sources: Chicago Sun-Times, Animal Farm Foundation, town of Aurelia website)

Update: From a press release by the Animal Farm Association

Aurelia, Iowa James Sak, 65, a disabled Vietnam Veteran and retired Chicago police officer, was forced to relinquish his service dog after the Aurelia Town Council voted December 14 to prohibit the dog, identified as a pit bull, from residing within Aurelia city limits. Although the City of Aurelia has breed-discriminatory laws prohibiting residents from owning pit bulls, the Councils decision appears to violate 2010 guidance from the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) on breed limitations for service dogs (Nondiscrimination on the Basis of Disability in State and Local Government Services).

Sak and his wife, Peggy Leifer, moved to Aurelia in November to live near Leifers ailing mother, an 87-year-old longtime resident of Aurelia. Sak was accompanied by his service dog, Snickers, who is certified with the National Service Animal Registry. In 2008 Sak suffered a debilitating stroke that left him permanently disabled, unable to use the right side of his body, and confined to a wheelchair. For two years Sak worked with Aileen Eviota, a physical therapist with the University of Illinois Medical Center in Chicago, to improve his functional capabilities and live more independently through the use of a service dog. 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 in a letter to the Aurelia Town Council dated December 2, 2011.

Days after moving into their new home, Sak and Leifer were summoned to a Town Council meeting after a small group of citizens circulated a petition calling for the dog to be removed from city limits. Although the dog has no history of aggression or nuisance complaints, the petition urged the Council to retain as written and without exception the existing City of Aurelia Ordinance, Chapter 58, which prohibits ownership of pit bull dogs.

However, 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 DOJ.

The Department 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 DOJ stated in the regulation. 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 December 14 the Aurelia Town Council told Sak that he must remove his dog from city limits by the end of the day. Snickers is currently being boarded at facility outside of Aurelia.

I lost my helper, said Sak, who served more than 30 years in the Chicago Police Department and enlisted in the Army during the Vietnam War. Im not looking for special treatment, I just want to be safe, and I need my service dog for that.

Without the service dog here to assist, I cant leave Jim unattended, said Leifer. But 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).

Sak is pursuing legal action against the City of Aurelia so he can be reunited with his service dog.
In accordance with our mission, Animal Farm Foundation is committed to assisting Sak with securing funding for this case. For more information, please contact Kim Wolf at (845) 418-0778 or kwolf@animalfarmfoundation.org.

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