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Vietnam vet's 300-pound emotional support pet — a pig — divides Largo neighborhood

LARGO — This was never just about the pig, the neighbors say, but the pig was a problem.

Last March a loud, large, shaggy-haired man named Bernie Lodico moved into Bay Ranch Mobile Home Park. A few months later he brought Kojak, his blind, 300-pound pet pig.

Largo law bars livestock in residential areas. And Kojak stank, some neighbors say. Management sent Lodico a letter.

"It is our understanding that you have a pot belly pig living in your back yard," wrote park manager Cliff Wicks on Sept. 26. "This is not allowed. Please place the pig somewhere else."

Lodico replied with a letter from a psychiatrist at James A. Haley VA Medical Center in Tampa. Lodico, 59, was a Marine who served in Vietnam. The pig is his "emotional support animal," the letter explained, a pet protected by federal law.

"Mr. Lodico … has a mood disorder and numerous psychosocial stressors," wrote Dr. Javier Cartaya. "This animal will support his coping skills."

The legal battle between Lodico and the park was only beginning. And the neighbors were right. This was about much more than a pig.

• • •

Lodico lives in Lot 347. Homeowners association president Malcolm Deane lives in Lot 345. Soon after Lodico moved in, Deane started getting complaints.

Lodico parked his truck in front of his unit overnight, full of scrap metal (breaking Bay Ranch Prospectus rules 8 and 11). His back yard was a mess (rule 8). His dogs barked all night (rule 19). He painted his home a pastiche of red, yellow, purple, blue and green (rule 18).

Deane thinks Lodico is unstable. Lodico exposed himself to Deane's adult daughter, Deane says, during a parking dispute in October. And then, after receiving an eviction notice Dec. 10, Lodico pounded on Deane's door and threatened to kill him. Deane called police. Lodico was held under the Baker Act, which allows people to be hospitalized for mental evaluation.

Deane is skeptical of Kojak's therapeutic benefits.

"I don't see how a 300-pound blind pig that can hardly walk or do anything. … How can that be an emotional support animal?" said Deane, 57.

The federal Fair Housing Act gives people with disabilities the right to keep emotional support animals, even when a landlord's policy or local law forbids it. Not every animal is protected, though.

Bonnie Milstein, housing policy director for the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, has seen legal tussles over dogs, cats and even lizards. Emotional support animals, she noted, can't interfere with anyone else's enjoyment of their property rights. So an emotional support elephant probably wouldn't be protected. But a pig?

"I don't know. I've never been asked about pigs," said Milstein. "It's not possible to reach any conclusions except to say that everyone's rights deserve respect."

The legal debate may be moot, though. Early one morning a few weeks ago, neighbors heard "loud swine squeals," according to Deane. Deane's wife, Karen, got a phone call from Beverly Farinha in Lot 348.

"I think the pig is dead," Farinha said.

"She saw him digging a large hole in his back yard," Malcolm Deane said. "She didn't see him put the carcass in it, but that's where we think it is."

• • •

Kojak is not dead, Lodico insisted outside his home a few weeks ago. She is dying, though, and with a veterinarian, he said. The stress over the possible eviction sent Kojak into an emotional tailspin. The pig won't eat.

Lodico doesn't know how he will cope if Kojak dies. It took him months to get over losing his first pig, Arnetta, which he accidentally ran over during a rainstorm when he lived in Tampa. Afterward, he bought Kojak.

"I have more respect for that pig than any person. She keeps me calm, cool and collected," Lodico said.

Like a proud parent, he pulled out pictures. Kojak as an infant, a small black blob. Kojak eating a watermelon, her black head buried in the green rind.

"She's sexy, isn't she?" he said.

This was always about Kojak, Lodico contends. Once the neighbors realized they couldn't get him evicted for his pig, they started looking for other reasons, he says.

The strange paint job?

"I'm a little crazy. I need happy colors."

Exposing himself?

"That never happened. … I have lost weight, and my shorts don't fit like they used to, but if they fall down, I pick them right up."

Threatening Deane?

Well, that actually did happen, Lodico said. He thinks his eviction case is all Deane's doing.

Lodico's neighbor Abe Saylor is on his side. Saylor, 72, is also a Vietnam vet. He thinks Deane is a phony.

Saylor says that when Deane moved in, he told people he worked for the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office and he intended to clean up the park. Saylor asked around and found out Deane isn't a deputy.

(When asked what he did for a living, Deane said, "That's classified." According to Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Cecilia Barreda, Deane is a breath test operator. "It is not, to my knowledge, a classified position," she said.)

Kojak wasn't a nuisance, Saylor said.

So what is it that has pitted neighbor against neighbor in this sleepy mobile home park behind a WingHouse on Ulmerton Road?

"Troublemakers," Saylor said.

They make it their business to get in everyone else's business, Saylor said.

Two doors away, Beverly Farinha overheard Saylor and Lodico talking with a reporter. The next day she explained, with the help of neighbor Margaret Keith, why Lodico has to go.

"He's not abiding by any of the rules," said Farinha, 69.

"We have rules here. … You can't have a potbellied pig here," said Keith, 70, who lives in Lot 300, across from Saylor.

"This summer, I had big horseflies," said Farinha.

"It was because of the pig," said Keith. "He didn't clean up its poop."

Farinha thinks Kojak is buried in Lodico's back yard. When she heard the squeals a month ago, Farinha peeked out her window. She saw Lodico standing over the pig. "After that," Farinha said, "where the pig used to lay is just hay."

• • •

While Lodico says he left Kojak with a veterinarian, the name he gave couldn't be found in the phone book or in online listings.

"Kojak is dead," Deborah Galleta, Lodico's roommate, said last week. Kojak has been dead for a few weeks, she said. Lodico buried her.

"Not here," she said, before the question could even be asked.

Later that night, Lodico called the Times. Kojak is alive and well, he said, in the care of a friend.

Lodico can't reveal her location, though. He's not supposed to be talking to reporters, under strict orders of his new attorney, who will represent him in a federal lawsuit. He also can't reveal the new lawyer's name.

Lodico's attorney in his eviction case is John Borland of Gulf Coast Legal Services. "I have no idea where the pig is," Borland said. "Honestly. I was not aware there was any health condition with the pig."

Kojak is being fitted for a red vest, Lodico says, the universal uniform for a service animal. When the legal battle is over and Lodico is triumphant, he says, Kojak will come marching back down the street, past the neighbors who tried to have her and her owner evicted. She will look beautiful in her bright red vest.

The only problem now, Lodico says, is that Kojak is lonely without him. He had to get her a friend, a piglet. Its name is Porkchop.

Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Will Hobson can be reached at (727)-445-4167 or whobson@tampabay.com.

Vietnam vet's 300-pound emotional support pet — a pig — divides Largo neighborhood 02/21/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 22, 2012 12:02am]
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