WJTV News Channel 12 - Havelock woman turned away from Chili Festival with service dog

Havelock woman turned away from Chili Festival with service dog

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HAVELOCK, N.C. -

A Craven County woman is demanding an apology from the city of Havelock, the Havelock Chamber of Commerce, and the police department after being restricted from attending the Havelock Chili Festival last week.

Katie Merkel, 22, says festival workers on Saturday asked her to leave because her service dog was not wearing a service vest. The Chili Festival is sponsored by the Havelock Chamber of Commerce.

Merkel says she goes nearly everywhere with her service dog because it helps control her crowd anxiety. She says she feels discriminated against.

"It wasn't so much that I was asked to leave. It was how I was treated. I felt like I was treated very unfairly," said Merkel.

Merkel says festival workers initially let her into the festival grounds because her dog was wearing a service dog vest. But she took the vest off her service dog when it started to overheat. That's when she says police and festival organizers asked her to leave.

A spokesperson for the city of Havelock, Diane Miller, defended festival workers' decision. She says they asked her to leave because the festival has a strict no-pet policy and Merkel did not show proof it was a service dog.

"The animal must wear SOMETHING that identifies it if it is in training.  If it is certified, the owner needs to have the DHHS card," said Miller in an emailed statement.

Merkel disagrees with this interpretation of state law.

"By law, it doesn't have to require identification or anything. That's a personal choice from the handler," she said.

The UNC School of Government seems to supports that.

"Note that the service animal tag is not required. If the disabled person can demonstrate that the animal is trained as a service animal, the state statute, like federal law, requires the facility to allow the person to be accompanied by the animal," it says on the UNC School of Government website.

Merkel is not planning to file a legal complaint, but she hopes her experience can be a lesson to others about equal opportunity.

"I would just like an apology to be quite honest," said Merkel.

Kirsti Clifford, a spokesperson for the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services many public places do not realize that North Carolina's service animal registration program is voluntary.

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