Boulder has the Skip, the Jump, the Hop. Perhaps it needs an Ark.

A Hop rider last week was surprised to see another passenger bring a snake on the bus and even more surprised to learn that was just fine, since the owner identified the snake as a service animal.

"We follow the Americans with Disabilities Act to the letter of the law," said Mary Cobb, a spokeswoman for Via, the paratransit service that operates the Hop under a contract with the city. "Our policy on service animals and the ADA policy are the same. Our drivers can say, 'Is this a service animal?' If the answer is yes, then they can ask, 'What service does it perform?' That is all we can ask.

"If we go into anything else, we are questioning that person's disability, which may not be visible. A complaint of discrimination based on disability is a very serious matter."

The Regional Transportation District, which operates the other bus lines in Boulder and throughout the region, also allows service animals.

Its website does not define what constitutes a service animal, but says they may be removed if the animals become "violent, disruptive or pose a threat to other passengers."

The ADA itself limits service animals to "dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities. ... Dogs whose sole function is to provide comfort or emotional support do not qualify as service animals under ADA."

However, Jennifer Edwards of the Animal Law Center in Arvada said there are other laws that govern housing and transportation that allow for a broader definition of "service" or "assistance" animals that can include almost any animal, provided the person has a note from his or her doctor.

"You can have snakes on a plane," Edwards said.

'No credibility whatsoever'

Yet David Favre, a professor who specializes in animal law at Michigan State University, said a snake strains the definition of a service animal.

"That has no credibility whatsoever, that a snake can perform a task, but that is just based on my 60 years on this Earth," he said.

But asked whether she knew of other therapy snakes, in addition to the therapy monkeys, cats and sugar gliders (a kind of possum) she has seen in her practice, Edwards said, "Oh yeah."

Daniel Greene, a man in Washington state, told the Seattle Times and People magazine that he has trained a 5-foot boa constrictor named Redrock to alert him to oncoming seizures with a gentle squeeze.

More often, Edwards said, snakes can provide emotional and psychological comfort.

"I can't speculate as to what this snake does for this man, what major life function it helps him for," she said of the bus rider, whom the Daily Camera was not able to identify.

University of Colorado professor Suranjan Ganguly, the rider who was bothered by the snake on the bus, said he has no objection to trained service animals and has students who bring service dogs to his classes. But he can't imagine a snake performing any kind of service.

"I was bothered by it," he said. "The bus happened to not have a lot of passengers, but imagine if the bus had lots of people on it. Someone could have panicked. Someone could have screamed."

Ganguly said he would like the Hop to stick to a more narrow definition of service animals.

'Not an open invitation'

Via's Cobb said animals are only allowed on Hop buses if they provide some service or therapy function.

"An outcome that we definitely want to avoid is the potential abuse some may use in defining the 'service animal' term and the limiting questions of the ADA as to what can be asked," she wrote in a follow-up email. "This is not an open invitation to bring any kind of animal on the Hop that one may want to, just to create a scene."

However, even if the ADA does not specifically protect snakes, Cobb said Via would not change its policy.

"So a snake to you and me might seem a little out there as a service animal," she said. "If the person says this is a trained service animal, we cannot question that. This creature is in their life for some sort of service or comfort. It could be an emotional comfort or protection comfort that that person may need."

Via does not track how often service animals ride the bus and how often they are animals other than dogs. Cobb said she was aware of at least one time a small pony rode a Hop bus in that capacity.

Much like RTD's policy, if any service animal is creating a disturbance or a safety issue, the driver can stop and ask the human passenger to leave with the animal, Cobb said.

There was no report that the snake caused any problems.

But Cobb said she herself would not ride a bus with a snake.

"This person, I guess thought, 'This is a bit much,'" Cobb said of the rider who complained. "I personally understand. If I got on the Hop bus and there was a snake, I would get off. That is my aversion."

Contact Camera Staff Writer Erica Meltzer at 303-473-1355, meltzere@dailycamera.com or twitter.com/meltzere.