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Pet Peeves

October 19, 1986|GARY KARASIK | Gary Karasik is a lecturer in the English Department at UC Santa Barbara.

Iwas walking my dog one Sunday when a frail, elderly woman stopped me. Except for white wisps of cotton-candy hair, she was all in pink: pink cheeks, pink cloche with pink veil, pink blouse with pink-lace collar, pink jacket, pink skirt, pink stockings, pink pumps, pink purse. She looked like a bottle of Pepto-Bismol.

She slowly kneeled and with a thin hand tenderly stroked the dog's head.

"Oh, I just love animals," she said in a brittle voice, "especially dogs. He's a Lab, isn't he? He's beautiful. What's his name?"

"Her name is Shadow," I replied.

She nodded. "Aren't you a pretty girl? My name is Dorothy," she told either me or Shadow. She looked up. "My little dog just died," she said with a slight catch in her voice. "Three years ago."

She sighed. "Blasted landlord won't let me have a new one. Why are they so mean?"

"It's not all that simple," says landlord Tony Romasanta, who owns a number of Southern California rental properties. "Animals can be terribly destructive. Where there is high density--where a lot of people are living closely together--that could mean an awful lot of animals, a lot of noise, a lot of animal waste. What about the rights of tenants who may not like animals? Where do all the animals go to the bathroom? Who picks it up when a tenant is irresponsible? Lawns and gardens can be ruined. What about the noise animals make when working people leave them alone at home all day?

"There are problems with fleas," he continues. "Three weeks after the tenant with the animal leaves, the flea eggs hatch, and the new tenant is suddenly infested. I wish it were an easier issue." Over the telephone, I hear his dogs barking in the background.

Without question, the noise pets make sometimes disturb other tenants. And pets sometimes cost landlords money. "But that's why tenants pay cleaning deposits," says Eileen Foster, a tenants'-rights activist from Los Angeles.

I know from experience the damage that pets can do to a place. I once moved into an apartment where a couple had raised a St. Bernard in a bedroom that had wall-to-wall carpeting. It took two weeks of scrubbing the walls to get rid of the smell. The floors had to be refinished. We had to burn the carpet. And I know that landlords want to protect their investments and to make the largest possible profits, but allowances should be made. I recently read an account of a Los Angeles landlord who forced an elderly tenant to get rid of an old, blind dog.

Federally funded housing projects have guidelines that permit seniors to have pets, and in California, thanks to a bill sponsored by Senate President Pro Tem David A. Roberti (D-Los Angeles), state-funded public housing has similar rules (the federal government uses 60 years as the dividing line, and the state 65).

But such regulations don't apply to private rental housing, where property owners or their designated managers have wide latitude over what is essentially private property. Many landlords react with hostility toward even the suggestion of regulatory legislation: "I don't want the government telling me what to do with my private property," said one North Hollywood landlord who declined to be identified.

Glenn Laabs, a director of the statewide California Apartment Assn., acknowledges the studies that show that pets can markedly improve the quality of seniors' lives and says, "I can't speak for the association, because we haven't discussed this. But personally, I would like to allow seniors to have pets. In fact, I considered doing that once; lawyers told me it would be illegal, that California law says you can't discriminate, can't allow pets for some tenants and not others."

Concurring with Laabs is Santa Barbara attorney Don Kuhn, who has long been interested in the law as it applies to seniors. Kuhn cites the 1982 Marina Point decision, in which the California Supreme Court ruled that a Marina del Rey apartment complex could not prohibit children because, the court held, it would be unconstitutional in California to discriminate on the basis of age (though in a footnote the court held that rules based on age might be acceptable in housing developments designed specifically for seniors).

If current California law won't permit that, what about changing the law to allow such "discrimination"? Assemblyman Jack O'Connell (D-Carpinteria) says, "Perhaps (it would have) an easier time in the Senate than in the Assembly. Sen. Roberti's bill was extremely popular; it drew a lot of favorable cards and letters."

Would O'Connell consider introducing such a bill? "I'd like to think about it," he says.

Meanwhile, many humane societies have begun outreach programs, such as the Pasadena Humane Society's Companion Animal Program, in which trained adult volunteers take young, adoptable animals to senior-citizen facilities and hospitals so that residents and patients can play with the animals. The three main benefits of such programs are that the young animals are socialized, making them more adoptable; the volunteers learn about a variety of animals; the seniors take great pleasure from these monthly contacts and in many cases their health improves.

"I miss my little Henry terribly," Dorothy said as she scratched Shadow's ear. "He was much easier to live with than my husband was.

"Yes, you're a beauty," Dorothy said to Shadow. She stood carefully. "You have a lovely day, now," she said, smiling. Then, just before she tottered off, she said, "As you can see, I myself am feeling in the pink."

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