On Wednesday, May 19, a Columbia County Sheriff’s deputy accompanied Rev. Susan Blake and her advocates to the home where Blake’s guide dog, Didi, was sent by Southeastern Guide Dogs after they forcibly removed the dog without warning, without cause, and without authority. The court order known as a writ of replevin was supported by the same transfer of ownership contract Southeastern claimed gave them the right of unilateral repossession.
“The contract makes it clear that Southeastern must obtain an injunction to retake the dog,” explains Marcy LaHart, Susan Blake’s attorney. “Our next step is to file a law suit for breach of contract, wrongful taking, and wrongful appropriation for giving Susan’s dog away.”
The saga began on March 4, 2021, when a representative of Southeastern Guide Dogs, a Palmetto, Fla. Nonprofit organization that trains guide dogs for the blind, showed up unannounced at the home of Rev. Susan Blake, a blind Episcopal priest for the diocese of Orlando, and removed Rev. Susan Blake’s 9-1/2-year-old guide dog because it appeared to be about four pounds overweight. Blake pleaded for her beloved guide dog to be returned and southeastern refused, citing a contract that they claimed gave them the right to unilaterally make such a radical decision. Southeastern gave Rev. Blake the chance to appeal their decision; however, the appeal was a sham heard by the same group that made the original decision. Rev. Blake was not allowed to speak in her own defense nor rebut the lies Southeastern made concerning the health of Didi.
Once the outcry from the public began to impact Southeastern, they began changing their story and their web of lies began to crumble. They asserted Rev. Blake had not had her dog to the veterinarian since 2018 while Blake’s records have her visiting the vet exactly one month earlier on February 4. Southeastern claimed the dog had tumors on one of its eyes while Blake’s vet noticed “a small growth on its lower right eyelid”. Southeastern asserted the dog needed dental surgery to address “severe gingivitis”; while Blakes vet stated, “The gums are pink, the teeth a bit worn, and there is some tartar”, all to be expected for a dog of Didi’s age. When confronted with facts that contradicted their statements, Southeastern changed their story again, claiming Blake “let Didi run free”; Blake admits Didi got out a couple times but she did not let her dog run free. Still unable to justify their immoral, unethical, and illegal behavior, Southeastern changed the narrative once again, asserting Susan Blake voluntarily returned the dog. Now, none of their lies matter any longer because Didi is home!
“The return of Didi is only the beginning of a process to hold Southeastern guide Dogs accountable and put the service animal training industry on notice that they cannot treat their consumers with this sort of disregard,” explains Marion Gwizdala, president of Advocates for Service Animal Partners (ASAP), the tampa-based advocacy and policy organization that supported Rev. Blake.
Gwizdala asserts these sorts of incidents are not uncommon. During his past thirty-three years as a service animal advocate, he has heard this story several times and has published other articles about these abuses. Convincing consumers to take on the multimillion dollar nonprofits with so much community influence and respect is a daunting prospect. Even when the abused are willing to come forward, finding an attorney to take on the case was problematic.
“For two months we just kept following the path that was unfolding before us,” explained Merry Schoch, a licensed clinical social worker and ASAP’s Vice President. “Susan finally came across Marcy LaHart and here we are!”
Gwizdala and Schoch were both involved in a similar case in which another Southeastern Guide Dog consumer, Les Demers, had his dog removed without warning and without cause on April 22, 2020. They did not know Marcy at the time but they do now!
“Their cruel, immoral, unethical, and illegal behavior stops here!” asserts Gwizdala.
Advocates for Service animal Partners has created a special advocacy fund to help others like Susan Blake and Les Demers, as well as anyone in need of advocacy support because of their choice to use a service animal. All funds are used specifically for advocacy efforts; none of these funds are used to pay salaries. You can support this fund by making a tax-deductible contribution by visiting the following links:
About Advocates for Service animal Partners (ASAP)
Advocates for Service Animal Partners (ASAP) is a newly-organized network of service animal advocates across the United States. Our goal is to encourage, educate, and support service animal handlers through printed and electronic publications, Informational webinars, recorded educational materials, and direct advocacy support, intervention, and mediation. In support of this mission, we also work to educate employers, governmental entities, private companies, housing accommodations, and the airline industry about the rights, responsibilities, and limitations of access under state and federal law.