Seventy-year-old Robert L. Brady has until Jan. 11 to give up Bane, the mixed-breed sidekick that his psychologist deemed as an emotional support dog.
His Conway-area condominium association won an arbitration order Dec. 12 requiring the Vietnam veteran to surrender the 4-year-old dog because it exceeds the community's 35-pound weight limit for pets. Bane weighs about 41 pounds. The canine now faces an uncertain future even as assistance dogs have gained greater access to communities, restaurants and shops.
"The reason I don't want to lose him is that he keeps my mind off the war and everything. He's just a wonderful companion," said the widower, who retired last year from working as a theme-park bus driver. "My life would be lost without a good companion and that's why I'm doing all I can to keep from having to get rid of him."
Brady's attorney, Jonathan Paul, said the association discriminated by looking only at the dog's weight without considering the disabled military veteran's documented need for an emotional support animal. He said they are also seeking guidance under federal fair housing laws aimed at protecting housing rights of disabled residents.
Homeowner and condo associations are among those grappling with the boundary lines for emotional support dogs. Unlike service dogs trained to assist disabled people with daily tasks, emotional support animals don't require training. They can be any species and require no certification to assist owners who have psychological disabilities, according to a June article published by the National Institutes of Health. In Florida, one association lawyer is seeking legislation to further clarify issues related to emotional support animals.
Florida law allows service dogs that calm "an individual with post traumatic stress disorder during an anxiety attack." Dogs that simply provide comfort, companionship and security don't qualify as service dogs, according to statutes.
Bane's fate is uncertain since he exceeds community weight limits but is deemed an emotional support dog. (Orlando Sentinel)
Orlando Veteran Administration psychologist Matthew Waesche wrote in an October 2015 letter that Brady was under his care and that the dog appears to help keep his owner's mental health issues in remission.
Orlando attorney Peter McGrath, who represents Orange Tree Village Condominiums, said Brady is a sympathetic figure but the association's animal restrictions become meaningless if left unenforced.
Brady and his dog have never caused problems, although Bane once lunged at a dachshund owned by an association officer and sometimes barks for extended periods, McGrath said. The situation is complicated because Brady's adult children resided in a nearby Orange Tree Village condo and kept the dog there until they were cited more than a year ago by the association, the attorney added. And even though no one has done genetic testing, McGrath said Bane could be a breed mix that is prohibited on the condo grounds.
The bottom line is that Brady can continue to pursue further legal channels but must give up the dog in three weeks unless he gets an injunction, McGrath added.
Donna Berger, an attorney who specializes in Florida condominium association law, said property-owner associations can sometimes be "mean spirited" but pet owners can also push the limits in efforts to keep dogs that violate rules.
"Every pet that needs to go suddenly morphs into an ESA [emotional support animal]," she said. "It's the same old routine."
She said she is pushing for legislation calling for pet owners to establish the need for emotional support animals with current medical records.
Bane lays his chestnut-and-white head in Brady's lap as his owner describes why he needs the dog: "Since my wife passed, he helps take my mind off stuff, like the war."
Orange Tree Village Condominiums has focused on Bane's weight for more than a year. Brady said he has been trying to feed the pet lean food to bring him closer to the limit but he doesn't want to starve Bane just to comply with the association's prescribed weight for pets.
Berger, whose firms represents associations across the state, said evicting animals based on their weight is "senseless" because size doesn't predict whether a dog will attack someone. Larger dogs can be more gentle and puppies are acceptable weights — until they grow up. By then, they are cemented into the family.
"A lot of these weight restrictions are antiquated," she said.