“By ensuring that my dog has a safe environment in which to perform his duties to the best of his ability, you are protecting my right to equality.” --Jeanne Torres, her guide dog, Argy, and her daughter, Aza.

House will take up bill
focusing on guide dogs

The legislation would criminalize
injuring service animals

By Pat Omandam

Virgil I. Stinnett still gets anxious as he recalls when his first guide dog, Brandon, a black Labrador retriever, was attacked by other dogs while they were walking along Kapiolani Park.

Legislature 2002 Stinnett, who is blind, a guide dog handler for the past three years, said two unleashed dogs suddenly appeared growling at his feet, and he froze, not being able to see or understand what was happening.

Luckily, help was nearby. But the psychological effect of the attack caused Brandon to have a nervous breakdown, and he had to be replaced with another guide dog. Stinnett told state legislators the two years and $65,000 invested in Brandon's training was lost, while the owners of the two dogs were fined just $20 each.

"The day that Brandon and I were attacked, all of that time, dollars and love went down the drain," Stinnett said.

The House Judiciary Committee forwarded to the full House yesterday a Senate bill that makes it a crime to injure or kill a guide dog, signal dog or service animal.

The panel approved an amended version of Senate Bill 2046, Senate Draft 1, after hearing emotional testimony from Stinnett and other guide dog handlers who say something must be done to help protect these specially trained dogs, which they depend on heavily.

Under the House version of the Senate bill, those who injure or kill a guide dog, service dog or signal dog face an initial penalty of 30 days in jail and a $2,000 fine. Subsequent convictions would increase the fines to $5,000.

Jeanne Torres, a guide dog owner since July 2000, told legislators the bill is needed to ensure the quality of life for her and her dog, Argy, who has not left her side since that time.

Torres said Argy is largely responsible for helping her regain her dignity, freedom and confidence.

"By ensuring that my dog has a safe environment in which to perform his duties to the best of his ability, you are protecting my right to equality," Torres said.

Even so, the Hawaiian Humane Society opposed the bill because it believes there are existing laws that provide protection to the dog and handler. For example, Hawaii's animal cruelty laws address the issue of a person who attacks and injures or kills an animal, while civil action can also be taken, said Pamela Burns, chief executive officer.

The state Public Defender's Office also opposed the measure, saying there is no pressing need to create an entirely new category of crimes to protect these dogs. Ronette Kawakami, deputy public defender, agreed that the current "cruelty to animal" laws adequately cover these animals.

"Moreover, the bill gives special treatment to professionally trained animals, relegating the family pet to a lower class," Kawakami said. "Many family pets have as much emotional and sentimental value to their owners as do the professional dogs."

Francine Wai, executive director of the Disability and Communication Access Board, said the board supports the intent of the measure but believes a new and separate law is unnecessary.

Judiciary Chairman Eric Hamakawa (D, South Hilo) removed language in the bill that would have also made it a crime to interfere with the use of such dogs or for someone to misrepresent themselves as the owner or trainer of a guide dog.

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