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Delta is banning pit bull service dogs. That might not be legal.

Koda, a brace and mobility support dog trained by the Animal Farm Foundation, will no longer be allowed to fly on Delta under a new policy announced by the airline in June. (Courtesy of Animal Farm Foundation)

Amid growing scrutiny of animals in airplane cabins, several airlines have unveiled tightened policies aimed at limiting the number of untrained pets or unusual species on flights. The changes, they have said, are driven by safety considerations and intended to ensure that service or emotional-support animals are traveling only with passengers who have disabilities.

Delta went further this week, announcing Wednesday that it would prohibit all “pit bull-type dogs” as service or support animals, in a move it called “the direct result of growing safety concerns following recent incidents in which several employees were bitten.” The airline told the Associated Press Friday that two employees were bitten by a pit bull traveling as an emotional-support animal last week.

But the announcement faced swift backlash from advocates for pit bulls, as well as from some service dog organizations and disability advocates who said they believe the Delta ban runs afoul of federal laws.

“First and foremost, it’s about people. Delta is discriminating against people,” said Regina Lizik of the Animal Farm Foundation in New York, which trains shelter dogs that have been labeled pit bulls to be service dogs for people with disabilities. “When Delta or anyone puts out a regulation like this that dictates what kind of dog can be a service dog, they are reducing access for someone with a disability.”

The Department of Transportation also cast doubt on the legality of the policy on Friday evening, saying in a statement that “a limitation based exclusively on breed of the service animal is not allowed under the Department’s Air Carrier Access Act regulation.” The agency did not say whether it had communicated with Delta officials about this interpretation of the federal disability law that applies to air travel, but it suggested that passengers turned away from flights would need to file a disability complaint with the department.

Service animals are trained to perform specific tasks for people with disabilities, and they enjoy broad access to public places and transportation on the ground, where the Americans With Disabilities Act applies; emotional-support animals, which are not necessarily trained, do not. The Justice Department, which enforces the ADA, has said that municipalities’ breed-specific bans — such as one in Miami-Dade County that prohibits pit bull dogs — do not apply to service animals of those breeds.

Airlines, however, are subject to the Air Carrier Access Act, which allows both service animals and emotional-support animals to fly free in the cabin but also gives carriers the right to turn away  unusual service animals, such as snakes, or animals that are overly large, too heavy or that pose “a direct threat to the health or safety of others.” Lizik and other advocates said they believe that suggests an airline can reject an individual dog that seems dangerous, but not issue a blanket ban on one class of dogs.

“With any kind of breed ban, people think, ‘What’s next? What breed will be next? Will it be something like German shepherds or will it be something like Doberman pinschers, which are both used as service dogs quite a bit?” said Jenine Stanley, the consumer relations coordinator for the Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind and America’s VetDogs.

Whether an airline breed ban would hold up in court has never been tested, said Rebecca Wisch, a clinical staff attorney and associate editor of the Animal Legal and Historical Center at Michigan State University. But cases involving other federal disability laws have, and they have sided with owners of pit bulls.

In 2011, a retired police officer who had trained his pit bull as a service animal sued the city of Aurelia, Iowa, arguing its ban on pit bulls violated his rights under the ADA. A U.S. District Court agreed, and the city eventually settled with the man. In 2014, a Florida man filed suit in a bid to keep his emotional-support pit bull at a no-pets condo in Miami-Dade. The court sided with the plaintiff, saying enforcing the ban would violate the Fair Housing Act, which allows service and support animals as ‘reasonable accommodations’ for people with disabilities.

“I expect some sort of challenge by disability advocates, because this poses freedom of travel challenges for those that rely on service dogs who are pit bull-type dogs or those of mixed breed that simply look like pit bulls,” Wisch said of the Delta policy in an email. “Imagine that scenario of trying to prove a negative and board a flight on time!”

The Department of Transportation is in the midst of a rewrite of its own rules on animals in airplanes, but it says it is focusing in the meantime in making sure U.S. carriers continue to accept the most common service animals — dogs, cats and miniature horses.

Delta’s policy “goes beyond the interim priorities that [DOT] is allowing right now,” Stanley said. “This is something they will not be able to ignore.”

Legal matters aside, several critics of the policy questioned how Delta would enforce it. “Pit bull” is not a breed but rather a generic category that can include American pit bull terriers or Staffordshire terriers and mixes, and studies have found that the label is often given arbitrarily. Delta’s policy now lists “bull dog types” along with goats and hedgehogs on a list of impermissible animals, but the company did not explain the standards employees will use to judge a dog’s breed when boarding.

“I’ve often said to people that pit bulls are like art or porn: You know it when you see it, and you can’t define it, and to each of us it means something different,” said Marjie Alonso, the executive director of the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants, which recently partnered with University of Massachusetts researchers to create an online test that asks participants to guess the breeds in mutts. People generally perform poorly, she said.

“Even if [Delta] did a DNA test, they might find one-fiftieth” of a dog is a pit bull type, Alonso said. “How much pit is too much pit for this mythical pit?”

What’s more, Alonso said, many dogs that might be viewed as pit bulls have attributes — stocky, solid bodies — that make them well suited as service dogs, particularly for people who use a dog to brace themselves when standing.

Lizik said the Delta announcement came as a surprise at a time when U.S. jurisdictions are increasingly rejecting or reversing breed-specific bans, which critics say do not reduce dog attacks and are based on stereotypes about animals that are frequently misidentified. Many animal shelters have also moved away from labeling the breeds of adoptable dogs.

The Animal Farm Foundation started its service dog program in part to demonstrate that pit bulls could do the job, she said. The organization has placed seven service dogs that perform various tasks, from pulling wheelchairs for their handlers to opening doors. One is a seizure response dog, Lizik said.

Many of the dogs that the foundation selects from shelters “flunk out” of training, she said. But that’s true of all service and working dog programs, even those that use purpose-bred dogs such as Labradors.

Pit bull-type dogs “weren’t really being judged as individuals, and we wanted to show that they are just like other dogs,” Lizik said. “They are just dogs. They can do the same thing that any other dog could have the opportunity to do.”

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