Jefferson in Jeff City

A dog named Jefferson watches the activity in the Missouri State Capitol from the office of his owner, Rep. Chris Dinkins, R-Annapolis.

Missouri House officials have largely forbidden state representatives and staff from bringing animals to work, saying in a revised policy handbook that pets are antithetical to maintaining “a professional and respectful work environment free from unnecessary distractions or impediments.”

At least two pet owner-legislators are objecting.

“I just think it’s kind of disturbing,” state Rep. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, D-University City, who previously served in the state Senate, said of the new policy. Rep. Peter Merideth, D-St. Louis, said he was “extremely concerned and disappointed” to hear of the new rules.

During the heat of the 4½-month legislative session — when brains are taxed, hours are long and debates are heated — dogs play an emotional support role amid the chaos, Merideth said.

“The dogs that we had there were really helpful when morale was down on tough days,” he said, adding that he understood legislators or employees who may be allergic to animals, or who don’t like the occasional accidents or barking.

The animal restrictions mark the latest battleground in the near-constant tussle over Capitol rules. Gov. Mike Parson’s administration is reconsidering a policy allowing concealed carry of firearms in the building after 50 people voiced their opposition.

The House is also considering an office smoking ban, which had not been enacted during the tenure of former House Speaker Todd Richardson, R-Poplar Bluff, who was known to smoke in his office. Smoking is mostly banned in the Capitol, but lawmakers can still light up in their private offices.

The revised House handbook, released in October, says it is House policy to “prevent and preclude the presence of animals, fish or aquatic life, and reptiles from within House space” unless the animals are locked in vehicles in Capitol parking garage areas.

There are exceptions. Service animals are allowed. So are “emotional support” animals, as determined on a case-by-case basis by the House Administration and Accounts Committee. Animals are allowed in hearings for testimony if legislation deals with the particular species. The Department of Conservation is also allowed to bring animals for presentations.

The Administration and Accounts Committee approved the change unanimously on Oct. 22, according to the chief clerk’s office. The Senate has not followed suit. The two chambers are separated by the Capitol Rotunda but are connected by hallways.

House Chief Clerk Dana Rademan Miller said in a statement that she has several family pets and “I understand how strong the bond can be with an animal companion,” but, “the Capitol is a public building with many shared spaces, which makes it important that we have policies that create a professional work space for our employees, and a safe environment for our many visitors. A pet can be a source of comfort for its owner, but can also be frightening to a visitor, a distraction for a co-worker, or even a threat to destroy taxpayer-funded property.”

She said the policy is no different than in many workplaces, and added the new policy was “carefully constructed” to allow for “licensed service animals and certified emotional support animals.”

Chappelle-Nadal brought Lily Freedom, her terrier/Chihuahua mix, to her Senate office on a regular basis. She has also brought Bartholomeus, or “Bart,” her 50-pound Australian cattle dog/Labrador retriever mix, on occasion.

“Your office is the domain of your district, and if you have a pro-dog district like I do, then you should be able to have a dog,” Chappelle-Nadal said, adding that Lily Freedom came from a litter of puppies who all joined the homes of various Ferguson protesters.

“She’s a Ferguson puppy,” Chappelle-Nadal said.

Merideth said he took Ella, a Maltese/Yorkshire terrier mix, to his office regularly. He estimated about 20 of his colleagues at least sometimes brought their dogs to work.

A spokesman for the House Democrats said that prior to the 2018 legislative session, party leaders asked Democrats to stop bringing dogs to the Capitol.

“I think there were a few legislative assistants who were not thrilled with dogs being around,” he said.

“That was not a rule and it was not widely followed, although I stopped bringing my dog at that point,” Merideth said. He said it was “widely understood” that new Democratic leaders would reverse the directive, though House administrators moved forward with the restrictions anyway.

Merideth’s dog Ella has since died, and he and his wife recently purchased a miniature Labradoodle named Lucky.

“I had gotten this dog in part with a conversation with my wife that, yes, I would bring him to Jeff (City) and he’d be in the office with me,” Merideth said, “because she does not want me leaving him at home.”

Chappelle-Nadal said she and Republicans formed bonds because of their mutual love for animals.

For years, former state Rep. Kevin Engler, R-Farmington, who for a time was the Senate majority floor leader, brought his late English bulldog Winston to the Capitol.

More recently, he brought Layla, a “prison mutt” his family got from the Puppies for Parole program.

“My dog never caused problems to anybody,” he said. “I don’t understand the need for it, but whatever. They can do whatever they want. I wasn’t aware of one complaint.

“My dog is smarter than some of the legislators that I worked with over the years,” Engler said.

ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH

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