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Retired Chicago cop’s service dog not welcome in Iowa town

Jim Sak Snickers

Jim Sak and Snickers

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Updated: January 23, 2012 10:41AM

For 32 years, nearly half as a tactical officer, Jim Sak was a cop chasing down bad guys on the streets of Chicago.

Now that he’s retired and living in tiny Aurelia, Ia., the townsfolk are chasing him — to get rid of “Snickers,” a five-year-old Pit bull-mix service dog he needs after suffering a debilitating stroke that left him with no feeling on the right side of his body.

On orders from the Aurelia City Council, a heartbroken Sak has shipped his beloved protector off to a kennel just outside of the Iowa town where he moved last month to be closer to his ailing, 87-year-old mother-in-law. If he hadn’t gotten rid of Snickers, city fathers had threatened to seize and destroy the dog.

The mandate sets the stage for a landmark lawsuit on grounds that the federal Americans for Disabilities Act (ADA) guarantees people with disabilities the right to have service dogs, regardless of their breed.

“I can’t believe they didn’t even try to talk to us. They just said, ‘No. You’re not having him. He’s outlawed in this town,’ “ Sak said Tuesday.

“I have spasms on my right side where the leg gives out whenever I get upset or try to do too much. When Snickers sees that my hand is moving, he sits down by me right away and waits for me to tell him what to do. Usually, he goes to get my wife so she can help me get back in the chair. Without him, I feel lost.”

He added, “I was a policeman for 32 years. I understand there’s black and white, but there’s also a grey area where you have to use your head. They’re not using their heads.”

Peggy Sak, Jim’s wife, said she’s “appalled and embarrassed by the town I grew up in…They have made our lives a living hell since we got here.”

She said she had no idea when she moved to Aurelia that the town had an ordinance banning pit bulls. That’s a crackdown that’s been talked about in Chicago, but never implemented.

“They called us to a city council meeting Dec. 14 and voted 3 to 2 to make no exceptions. I had to get him out of the house by the next day. That dog has never been away from us a night in his life. He’s the sweetest, most good-natured dog you’d ever want to meet,” Peggy Sak said.

“I left the meeting and threw up on the street outside the place. I can’t stop crying. Jim, being the Chicago cop, is stoic, but very depressed. It’s terrible. I’m afraid to leave him. My mother is now helping take care of Jim because the dog isn’t here to help him.”

George Wittgraf, an attorney representing the Iowa town, said Aurelia is “simply exercising its authority to protect and preserve the rights and property of its residents — whether or not that’s trumped by” federal law.

City Clerk Barb Messerole said the ordinance was approved in March, 2008 after a meter reader was bitten by a pit bull.

“They had several people come forward saying they were concerned about the pit bull because of the nature of the breed. They just feel it’s unsafe. They’re aggressive and could hurt somebody. If the service animal was anything but a pit bull, it would have been fine,” she said.

The Animal Farm Foundation said the group has hired an attorney to represent the Sak family and is paying to board the dog at the out-of-town kennel, pending the legal challenge.

“It’s about the injustice of this man having his service dog taken away — this man who is a Viet Nam War veteran and a retired Chicago Police officer who has always given back to the community,” said executive director Stacy Coleman.

“This town has taken away this man’s independence, his peace of mind, and his freedom to move about his house, go out in public and keep from having to go to a nursing home with 24-hour care. He’s physically in danger without his dog.”

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