The headline almost reads like an SNL parody or a headline from the Onion. “PETCO Discriminates Against Patron With Service Dog on ADA 25th Anniversary: Company Cites Policy” However bizarre, it’s real. On the heels of celebrating the 25th anniversary of the ADA, I find my experience this weekend jaw dropping, offensive and particularly timely.
So what happened?
This past Saturday I visited a local PETCO in Washington D.C. (Store 782) as I have done every month for the past two years to groom my beloved service dog. Upon arriving I was made aware of a newly established policy prohibiting pet owners from accompanying their pets into the grooming area. Having been a loyal patron for years, and previously accompanying him without issue, I reminded them that Pico was in fact a service dog and not a pet. Further, I reiterated that by law I am required to maintain control of my dog at all times while in public either by leash, or in some instances other voice commands and that attempting to separate us was a violation of the American’s with Disabilities Act.
According to ADA.gov
Under the ADA, service animals must be harnessed, leashed, or tethered, unless these devices interfere with the service animal’s work or the individual’s disability prevents using these devices. In that case, the individual must maintain control of the animal through voice, signal, or other effective controls.
Further the law states
A person with a disability cannot be asked to remove his service animal from the premises unless: (1) the dog is out of control and the handler does not take effective action to control it or (2) the dog is not housebroken. When there is a legitimate reason to ask that a service animal be removed, staff must offer the person with the disability the opportunity to obtain goods or services without the animal’s presence.
After reiterating the above, I was advised that the crackdown on corporate policy was firm. I was told that if I wanted my dog groomed, I would have to relinquish him to a groomer, and wait in an adjacent room. I would have no ability to control my dog’s behavior as required by federal law.
When no agreement could be reached between myself and the interim manager (who only identified himself by his first name), he became increasingly hostile. He didn’t need any educating on the ADA, he told me. He had previously worked on the Hill, and with Congress and was thereby, all-knowing. He followed by encouraging me to file a complaint with PETCO and even advised me to pursue legal action if I felt that was appropriate. The policy however, would stand.
Steadfast in my conviction, I called the customer relations number he had given me moments ago. Surely this would lead to a resolution.
I spoke briefly to a customer service representative and briefed her on the circumstances. She asked to speak with the interim manager and I stood by listening to him explain how the shift in policy occurred recently as the result of the district manager reprimanding an employee for not previously enforcing it. When they completed the brief exchange, I came back on the line only to hear the representative cite the policy in place, as if I hadn’t been standing there to hear the exchange moments before. “Oh, it’s policy?” I thought to myself. “That clears everything up.” Not to worry. I’m told that the issue is being “escalated” and that the district manager will follow up with me on my complaint. Never mind that it was the district manager who was enforcing the discriminatory corporate policy.
At this point I opted to leave the store and continue my conversations outside hopeful that I would reach a customer service representative who wasn’t so tone deaf as to rely on reciting the script used by the previous representative.
Nearly 90 minutes and three representatives later, I’ve gotten absolutely nowhere. I’m promised a follow up by the district manager once again. Nobody has uttered anything close to an apology for how I’ve been treated.
Frustrated by the lack of progress, I kicked into activism mode. I stood outside the store taking the opportunity to educate would-be patrons before entering that PETCO did not support the ADA or patrons with disabilities. I engaged a few and took solace in having done something.
The interim manager upon discovering my activism was less than pleased and went as far as to call my response “vindictive.” Then, adding insult to injury he offered to take my dog in the back in the grooming area “as long as I was out there.” Once again proving he missed the point entirely.
“Has your policy suddenly changed?” I inquired.
“No,” he says.
“Then you’re still violating federal law.”
“I can offer you a bag of dog food for your trouble,” he says without a hint of irony.
“Thanks, but no.” I said.
He went a good distance to smoke a cigarette and that was the last I saw of him before heading home, now having spent three hours at PETCO trying to get my dog groomed.
Having felt like I’d officially entered the Twilight Zone, I reached out to PETCO on Twitter.
Their response came fast. “Can you direct message (DM) more details so we may get in touch with you?”
My excitement and hopes that I had possibly reached a compassionate (if not PR-savvy individual) were quickly dashed. Upon sending a DM with my information, their reply was equally daft. “The district manager has been made aware of the issue and will be the one to work with you.” When I point out that nobody has apologized in the slightest for my experience, they follow up with another direct message that read, “We apologize.” No doubt that had to be vetted by their lawyers.
So slightly more than 48 hours have passed and PETCO has taken no visible action to reverse this discriminatory policy or hold anyone accountable. PETCO, their corporate team, and their public relations team are bewilderingly and to their own detriment standing behind their discriminatory practices.
With recent celebrations nationwide about all the progress made thanks to the ADA, this past weekend reminds us all that there is still much work to be done.
Sign my petition and tell PETCO to stop discriminating against people with disabilities.