Sonia Miller can practically hear the clock ticking as she flips through a thick stack of legal papers, her dog Bela at her side.
Miller has been warned that, by the end of the month, she must leave the North Sacramento mobile home park where she has lived for the past three years. The reason: Bela, a burly pit bull terrier that the park manager argues is a threat to other tenants.
Miller, 76, has hired a lawyer and is fighting the move, arguing that her dog is a service animal and the victim of breed discrimination. Bela, she said, is protective but not vicious, and is certified as a service animal to help her with mobility problems.
“Why should she be punished for her breed?” Miller asked, as Bela held court next to her desk on a recent day at the Arden Arcade apartment complex she manages.
It is happening across the country as landlords, insurers and local governments respond to concerns about the muscular pit bull terrier’s background in the underground fighting industry, and mounting reports of unprovoked attacks on humans and other animals.
Landlords increasingly are barring specific breeds of dogs at rental properties, and pit bulls are at the top of the list. Insurers are refusing to cover homeowners who have pit bulls, Rottweilers and other so-called “bully breeds,” or are charging their owners higher premiums. The New York City Housing Authority, the city’s largest landlord, has banned pit bulls from its dwellings, and a handful of municipalities have outlawed the dogs.
Supporters of such restrictions argue they are necessary to shield the public against breeds of dogs that have been genetically programmed to be vicious. Others call the regulations unfair and discriminatory, arguing that the animals, if properly trained, can make fine companions.
Miller, who said she depends on Bela to help brace and steady her on her creaky arthritic knees, finds herself at the center of the debate.
Her mobile home park’s manager, Ron Johnson, has told her she must leave by March 26, citing a rental contract that prohibits pit bulls and several other breeds. In documents supporting the eviction, he said Bela has intimidated tenants, and tried to attack at least one of them.
Miller denies the allegations.
“I do feel safe when she is around, but she has never bitten anyone and she’s not aggressive,” she said.
Landlords have the right to prevent a tenant from keeping animals. But federal law gives disabled people the right to have service animals of any breed as long as they pose no danger to other tenants.
That is the protection that Miller is counting on in an effort to keep her spot at Village Green mobile home park, a collection of mostly well-kept residences in a hardscrabble North Sacramento neighborhood.
Bela, who at 10 months old weighs about 65 pounds, is an official “companion dog,” as confirmed by a certificate signed by Miller’s doctor. By virtue of the document, a laminated copy of which Miller carries with her everywhere, Bela is allowed to accompany her owner to work and into stores and restaurants that otherwise might bar her.
Under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, landlords must make “reasonable accommodations” to owners of service dogs, even if a breed is banned, said Los Angeles attorney Robert Newman, a specialist in animal law. That’s assuming, he said, that the pup in question “is of sound temperament.”
That question is at the heart of the case involving Bela.
The mobile home park is “more than willing” to accommodate people like Miller and their service dogs, said Joseph Carroll, a lawyer representing the community.
“She’s entitled to protection,” he said. “The problem is that this dog’s behavior has been very bad. She hasn’t bitten anyone yet, but her conduct is threatening.”
The park has received four written complaints about Bela, including one that she barked and bared her teeth menacingly to children walking along a back fence, Carroll said. She has broken loose from her leash more than once, “charging” a tenant in the street, he said.
In legal papers supporting the termination of Miller’s lease, Johnson called Bela a “substantial annoyance” to other tenants.
He gave Miller several warnings dating back to August before recently telling her she must give up Bela or vacate the property by March 26. Johnson referred queries about the matter to Carroll.
In recent days with a reporter present, Bela displayed two different roles: gentle pet and protective guard dog.
Inside Miller’s office at the apartment complex one afternoon, she appeared calm, even sitting in a tenant’s lap. “Bela’s not mean,” said Joann Estep, cuddling the dog. “She might lick you to death, but she wouldn’t bite you.”
But the next day, at the home that Miller shares with roommate Sandy Thomas, Bela snarled and growled repeatedly at a visitor. Miller placed a muzzle on the dog, mostly to ease the visitor’s concerns, she said.
“She scares people because she’s a pit bull,” Miller said. “They’re wonderful dogs, but they have such a poor rap.”
Miller, who adopted Bela as a puppy, said she chose a pit bull in part because the breed is strong enough to pull her up from chairs and out of the car. She understands that Bela might be intimidating to some people, she said, but she thinks the dog just needs more training. Bela is a graduate of puppy obedience school and is taking a behavioral course at PetSmart, she said.
“She really is a good girl,” Miller said, displaying pictures of the dog posing with Santa Claus and dressed as a ladybug for Halloween.
Others see Bela as a ticking time bomb.
Karen Allman, who lives next door to Miller and Thomas, said she thinks the dog needs to go.
“It’s in the rental contract, no pit bulls, and I agree with it,” said Allman. “I have had friends with pit bulls I could trust. But I don’t feel comfortable with Bela. I don’t feel that those ladies have control of her.”
Allman said she is not personally afraid of Bela, but “I do have a grandson who I would worry about if he were here and the dog was loose.”
The pit bull’s reputation for ferocity and unpredictability has not been lost on insurers, said Jim Whittle, assistant general counsel of the American Insurance Association, an industry group.
Whittle said dog bites are among the biggest reasons for homeowners’ insurance claims, costing millions of dollars a year. “This is a breed that has been tied to fighting,” he said of pit bulls. “It’s not the fault of the dog, but when insurers are assessing risk they have to account for that.”
As pit bulls proliferate across the country, filling shelters and causing havoc, animal advocates including PETA are calling for a ban on breeding the dogs. Other groups have protested bans on pit bulls, calling them needless and discriminatory.
Debora Bresch, senior director of government relations for the ASPCA, said such blacklists punish “good” dog owners, and may cause owners of “outlawed” dogs to go into hiding. ASPCA favors “breed neutral” laws that hold individual owners accountable for the actions of their animals.
“In a dense housing development, the question should be ‘How disruptive is this individual animal to the apartment or mobile home park?’ she said.
As the calendar ticks toward eviction, Miller is contacting Congressional representatives in a last-ditch bid for help. Carroll, the park’s lawyer, said Monday that “we are open to another solution,” but that Miller must show that Bela is not a threat.
It may come down to a choice between leaving the mobile home park or giving up her dog, Miller said. If so, she said, she would find a new place to live.
“No question,” she said.
Allman shook her head at the choices that Miller and Thomas are facing.
“I like them and they’re great neighbors,” she said. “I just wish they had never gotten that dog.”