A misunderstanding between Beardsley’s Cider Mill and Orchard and a female Shelton veteran went viral this week, sparking outrage from people around the country.
Somehow, the story about Iraq veteran Lauren Cust being denied access to the orchard because of her service dog, spread around the country. Cust isn’t sure how it started and how it grew so big, she said, but the Beardsley Cider Mill and Orchard Facebook page became inundated with angry messages this week from military veterans and other people around the country. Many were threatening in nature, wishing the business would fail and accusing the owners of being anti-veteran. Cust ran to the defense of the orchard in the wake of all the vitriol.
“While I appreciate the support of the general public and I already knew that veterans stick together, I cannot support the threats, bad wishes and language sent to the Beardsley farm,” Cust told The Herald. “I come from 100 years of family owned businesses and I believe they are the backbone of America. They are just as much of a part of America as Veterans.
“I do not think this farm or owner is anti-veteran,” Cust continued. “He didn’t know I was a veteran until the end of our conversation.”
So how did all of this start?
Cust, an Iraq veteran, went to pick apples at the Leavenworth Road business last weekend with her family and service dog. The dog, Dorothy, helps Cust with her post traumatic stress disorder, licking her hand or acting up when she has a flashback or a panic attack, in order to snap Cust out of it.
Cust, now 30, also injured her back while serving, so the dog can help with mobility issues, like carrying things for her when she is in pain and helping her balance.
The family never made it inside the orchard last weekend because Cust’s service dog was not allowed in. Owner Dan Beardsley doesn’t allow dogs into the orchard for health reasons but does have a policy to allow service dogs and guide dogs. Based on his conversation with Cust, Beardsley thought Dorothy was a therapy or comfort dog, which is excluded under the ADA regulations of a service dog.
“One way to reduce the potential for microbial contaminants is to have a no-pet policy in the orchard where fruit is growing and being harvested,” Beardsley said this week. “This is industry standard practice in Connecticut and throughout the country.”
Microbial contamination is a serious concern.
“It is a known fact among food growers and the government agencies that regulate them that up to 85% of microbial contamination is the result of animal and human wastes,” Beardsley said. “One example is the Listeria outbreak in Colorado last year that was found to have been caused by animal feces on the tire of a farm truck.”
It’s a busy time of year for the orchard and Cust said with all the people coming in, she thinks that it became a misunderstanding. She wanted to show Beardsley the papers explaining that Dorothy is a service dog but people were coming in in droves, she said.
While Cust and her 18-month old daughter were upset that their trip to the orchard didn’t happen, Cust said she understood that it happened because a lack of understanding about different kinds of service dogs, which can help people with a number of issues that may not be obvious to others right away. After the experience at the orchard, she says she was more interested in educating the public about the different needs for service dogs and the laws that allow these dogs to enter almost all places. She was shocked to see how the story spread and what was happening on the orchard’s Facebook page.
The small business was also reeling from all the comments.
“As a business owner trying to comply with multiple agency regulations, you sometimes have to make decisions that are unpopular with some groups,” Beardsley said. “From my perspective this difficult issue was about safety not veterans.”
The idea of the cider mill and orchard being anti-veteran couldn’t be farther from the truth, Beardsley said.
“I hold veterans in the highest regard and have several combat veterans in my family, employ a veteran and employ a student who has signed up to join the Marines after graduation,” he said. “I am truly sorry this incident has caused so much distress. I would, of course, like to keep all of my customers safe and happy.”
Cust, who has had Dorothy for six months, has run into similar issues before and she says she uses it as a way to inform people. Several Shelton residents helped Cust fund-raise for the service dog, including Aldermen Jack Finn. The dog has changed her life, she said.
“I wouldn’t leave my house and I had painted my windows black because I was afraid of sniper fire,” Cust said. “Now I can take my daughter to the park and have a normal life.”
Dorothy has her service dog papers and wears a vest. While in the vest the small German Shepherd is trained to not go to the bathroom.
“I have to take the vest off her so she will go,” Cust said.
The dog also wakes her up from nightmares and when someone is standing to close to Cust, making her uncomfortable, Dorothy puts herself between her and the other person.
Dorothy can come with her everywhere, except for churches, where Cust must first ask permission to bring the dog, she said.
“She really knows when she is at work and play,” Cust said. “I think it’s really important for people to understand that people use these dogs for all sorts of reasons, there are dogs that detect seizures, children who have autism have service dogs, there are so many reasons.”
Today, Cust is a social worker, who helps other female veterans.
For more on this story see next week’s print edition of The Herald.