Famous Failures takes us on a comprehensive tour of humankind’s most confident leaps in the wrong directions. The column examines history’s greatest worsts, and gives Lasik to our cultural hindsight. In today’s case file, a service to one becomes a disservice to all in proximity when one person’s pet wears a legal loophole like a leash.
The millennia-spanning relationship between humans and animals can be summarized as, “What have you done for me lately?” Entire civilizations were founded, built, torn down and rebuilt just a little worse on the backs of beasts of burden. Generations were served by domesticated creatures as dogs diligently protected them and cats enthusiastically resented them. Wildlife and livestock provided immeasurable sustenance for countless hungry families, not to mention the number of people who eat out of boredom.
Now that civilization has peaked, the understanding between humans and animals has grown exponentially more awkward. If the planet Earth was a potluck, animals would be the guests who arrived early to help clean and set up, while humans would be the party crashers who arrived late, brought cheap beer while drinking all the good high-end microbrew stuff, bring up politics and religion in every conversation, and end the night overstaying their welcome by crying on the animals’ shoulders, wailing, “You’ll still invite me to things, right?”
Service animals are the face of this current reluctant friendship. Defined as animals carefully trained to perform tasks or provide services for humans with needs or disabilities, the Department of Justice passed a special act to ensure that these creatures are welcome in buildings, businesses and establishments that humans built over their natural habitats. With proper documentation, service animals can board airplanes, get into sold-out movie screenings, and attend weddings without returning an RSVP. They can not only enter restaurants without violating health codes, but they can secure tables at steak houses otherwise booked months in advance.
Watch a guide dog, helper monkey, or therapy cat closely and you can practically see them shrug, as if to say, “Well, it beats getting eaten.”
In 1993, shortly after the ADA was passed to grant privileges to service animals, a Madison, Wisconsin real estate agent named Gretel Happ suffered a nervous breakdown when her fiancée called off their engagement to tour the state fair circuit with his all-male Wilson Phillips cover band, “Five O’Clock Shadows and Light.” Upon getting dumped via car phone, Greta veered her Oldsmobile off the highway and into the neighboring woods with the intent of driving into a tree. She was so distraught, however, that her concentration was impaired; she missed every tree in the dense woodland area and careened into a clearing until her tires were blown out by a stag’s antlers. The stag, in turn, was blown out by the Oldsmobile.
Greta was knocked unconscious by the impact but eventually brought back around by the stag’s mate, a doe that tried to rescue Greta by repeatedly slamming its head against the driver-side door. Paramedics reached Greta just moments after their lunch hour, but she refused to be parted with the doe, insistent that the animal saved her life and citing it as her emergency contact. The paramedics tied the struggling doe to the hood of the ambulance and lured it into the E.R. with a trail of saltwater solution meant to revive cardiac arrest victims. Greta and the beast were inseparable after this.
She felt a deep kinship with the doe, which she named Jumpy; after all, they both recently lost their life partners and shared a skittish, fearful tendency towards other people. Empathizing deeply with Jumpy’s nervous demeanor, Greta had her psychiatrists declare her emotionally disabled and certified Jumpy as her service doe. “Every week,” recalls her primary psychiatrist, Dr. Janelle Delaney, “Most of Greta’s hour would be spent dragging Jumpy into my office by her harness. The deer would run into my bookshelves a few times, Greta would apologize profusely, and I’d send them off with several prescriptions filled out for maximum-strength animal tranquilizers for Jumpy… at least, I hope they wound up going to Jumpy.”
Friends, family, and local businesses expressed increasing concern over Greta and Jumpy’s association. Greta was clearly in dire psychological need, but she couldn’t even fill out her prescriptions without Jumpy knocking over shelving units full of pill bottles. Besides, she hadn’t sold a house in months with Jumpy around, kicking out the windows and grazing on all the newly-installed carpet. Greta recoiled against her community’s attempt at intervention, riding Jumpy out of First Lutheran Church’s basement while shouting, “You just don’t lie about throwing a bake sale!”
In response, she lobbied fiercely at Wisconsin’s capital building, insisting her rights to a service animal be recognized and upheld. She proposed starting an institute for the breeding and training of service does to spread national awareness of their therapeutic abilities, such as they were. Wisconsin Senator Benji Bloomhauser (R) rejected Greta Happ’s proposal for the Jumpy Institute, fearing a negative impact on the state’s hunting season and his own side-business, Chef Bloomhauser’s Gourmet Venison Jerky Bites.
Greta’s lobbying continued for years until the ADA passed a second bill, the “Disservice Animal Act” which listed deer among several animals deemed unfit for service animal status, alphabetically placed between “Deer mice” and “Deep sea squids.” Greta gave Jumpy a tearful midnight goodbye beside the country road in front of her house before releasing her from her service animal duties and her tight-fitting harness. Greta and Jumpy never crossed paths again; however, later that night her runaway fiancée finally returned to her after his band replaced him with a teenage Japanese baritone who also won multiple state fair eating competitions.
They eloped the following morning and, hearing Greta passionately recount her years of therapy through a doe she released the night before, he decided against telling her where the massive dent in his Buick Skylark came from.
Eric Stolze writes ad copy, articles, and screenplays in Los Angeles.