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Woman seeks use of equine as aide

Pony would help deal with disability

WARREN, Vt. - The Central Vermont Community Land Trust usually has no objection to a service animal such as a seeing-eye dog moving into its apartments. But Patty Cooper's service animal is a horse of a different color: a black and white miniature horse, to be exact.

The nonprofit housing group is trying to figure out whether it can accommodate a disabled woman's new companion, with its need for grazing space and questionable housebrokenness.

"Frankly, it's a bit unique," Preston Jump, executive director of the Land Trust, said in an interview.

Cooper, 50, has a severe case of celiac disease, a disorder in which exposure to a protein called gluten destroys the ability of the small intestine to absorb nutrients. One result can be brittle bones, and Cooper has used a wheelchair since she broke her back for the second time four years ago.

Earl, short for Early to Rise, is a 1-year-old miniature tobiano pinto horse that weighs about 100 pounds and is 32 inches tall at the shoulder - just the right height for a frequent face-to-face nuzzle with Cooper as she sits in her wheelchair.

Earl isn't living with Cooper yet, but she visits him daily at the farm where he is recovering from his recent gelding. It is clear that a bond has developed in the few months since she bought him.

"This guy just makes me so happy whenever I'm around him," Cooper said. "I'm not lonely any more."

Her plan is to attach shafts extending from Earl's harness to her wheelchair.

"He'll be able to pull me back and forth to the bus stop and pull me to town. After he's trained he'll be able to go on the bus with me under ADA laws."

The ADA is the Americans With Disabilities Act, the federal law requiring entities that provide public accommodations, like the Land Trust, to make reasonable efforts to accommodate people with disabilities.

Cooper got a letter last week from the operations manager of the 24-unit housing complex where she lives expressing worry about "possible health and safety issues. So, can you tell us how you intend to dispose of the pony's waste? Is the pony housebroken? If he is house-trained, who is going to pick up after him outside?

"What does this animal require for food?" it continued. "If it is hay and grain, as I suspect, where and how do you plan to store this food so that it will not attract rats or otherwise become a potential health risk to the other residents living in this complex?"

It went on to say the trust was investigating whether a 4-by-6-foot stall Cooper had built in her living room for Earl constituted an alteration and therefore a lease violation. Cooper called that "a veiled threat of eviction" on a blog she has been maintaining about the issue.

This week, both Cooper and the Land Trust were taking a more conciliatory tone.

"I don't have any problem with the Land Trust," she said. "I think they do very good work in the community" by providing affordable housing for low- and moderate-income people.

The Land Trust issued a statement in response to press inquiries. "CVCLT's policy is to make every effort to accommodate the specific needs of our disabled residents, including making allowances for service animals when the service to be provided is reasonably related to the disability at issue," it said.

"Due to the unusual circumstances associated with housing a pony in an apartment setting," it added, "careful review and consideration is being given to this request in order to determine whether this animal can reasonably address the specific needs described by this resident while assuring the overall welfare of both the animal involved and neighboring residents in the apartment complex."

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