Municipalities nationwide grapple with bans on pet pigs

The knock on Dani Guill's door came in early May. It was a zoning compliance officer, there to investigate a complaint from a neighbor. Word was that a pig lived in her Virginia Beach, Virginia house, he told her.

He wasn't wrong. In fact, 3-year-old, 120-pound Pumpkin has her own bedroom and wardrobe. She loves Honey Nut Cheerios and acts grumpy when she doesn't get as much as she wants.

But unlike Guill's dog, Pumpkin is not allowed to reside in Virginia Beach. City law views her as livestock, though she is a potbellied pig bred to be a pet. Guill said the officer gave her 30 days to relocate the pig.

The eviction is now on hold as two city council members, at Guill's urging, draft a proposal to legalize Pumpkin and other pet pigs in the city. Guill said seven other owners have surfaced since she took up the cause. "Out of the woodwork, here come all the other pig parents," she said.

It's hardly an unusual municipal matter. Across the nation, pet pig owners are forcing cities and towns to grapple with the definition of swine and reassess zoning laws written in eras when the divide between pets and farm animals was far starker.

In the past year, pet pig legalization has been on the agenda in Holland, Michigan; Brookhaven, Georgia; and Chatfield, Minnesota - all of which decided to allow pigs. In Amherst, New York and Eureka Springs, Arkansas, officials did the opposite, upholding bans and calling for the ouster of outlaw pigs. Officials in other places are still mulling what to do.

"This is a growing concern. . . . It's hitting councils all over the country," said Mickey Schneider, a Eureka Springs alderwoman who pushed to change local law so that two potbellies in the Ozarks tourist town could stay. The animals have not been expelled, and Schneider said she's still trying. "These pigs are not stinky. And they are very friendly. And they are cute."

The number of debates over the animals is the result of increasing efforts to change laws, not necessarily a rise in the pet pig population, said Kimberly Chronister, a pig breeder who is vice president of the American Mini Pig Association. Although the pigs in question are often referred to as potbellied or teacup or micro, none is likely to be accurate, she said. Much breed mixing has occurred since a Vietnamese potbellied pig craze in the 1980s, and today nearly all are hybrids that she said should be known as "American mini pigs."

But they are mini only compared to commercial hogs, which can grow to well over 600 pounds. (Esther the Wonder Pig, an internet sensation whose owners initially believed she was a "micro" pig, tops 650.) Mini pigs usually weigh between 60 and 150 pounds but can reach 300, Chronister said. Their ample size often leads unprepared owners to abandon them, as do zoning restrictions.

"Most city shelters are not equipped to take a pet pig," Chronister said. Owners "really have nowhere to turn but rescue. And the rescues are already struggling to maintain what they've got."

The animals make good pets - with some caveats, according to those who have them. On the upside, they are clean and sweat-free, quick to potty train and learn tricks, and highly emotional and intelligent - as smart as a 3-year-old, owners like to say. That is also the downside: The animals can be mischievous and prone to tantrums. Pig-proofing the house is highly recommended.

"She emptied my Tupperware cabinet for some reason. That was her way of saying, 'You've made me angry; now you need to get out of my way,' " said Megan Anderson, whose pig, Nugget, is in exile at a farm outside Cleveland, Tennessee, where she lived with Anderson until an animal control officer showed up in May and gave her three days to find the pig a new home.

Anderson, a supervisor at a center for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said she rescued Nugget from an unfit owner when the animal was a few weeks old. Two years later, Nugget weighs more than 40 pounds and sits on command. "I know if she's upset, or wants to go outside, or is hungry, or wants to share my food," Anderson said. "You kind of learn your pig's language after a while."

Anderson has since been pressing the city council to change the zoning ordinance that prohibits swine, which she acknowledges she did not research before taking in Nugget. "It seems so crazy," she said, noting that her Rottweiler weighs more than the pig.

The issue appears to be on ice for now. In an email, Cleveland City Manager Joe Fivas said the council had heard "limited public comments" on the topic but has had no additional discussions nor asked city staff to prepare information on the issue.

Chronister, whose organization offers guidance on getting zoning laws changed, said more pig legalization efforts succeed than fail. But opposition isn't uncommon.

One pro-pig city council member in Virginia Beach, Jessica Abbott, posted on Facebook last month about her draft resolution, which would allow pigs under a certain size and require owners to register them. Some followers cheered the idea. Others wondered why pigs are being "fast-tracked" when backyard hens remain banned in the city. Still others said: Don't you have more important things to do?

"Who cares about pigs as companions in Vb when we have flooding and high taxes," one person commented.

Abbott, in a lengthy response, pointed to her work on more traditional issues, such as flood infrastructure. But when constituents approach her with problems, "I have a responsibility as a representative to bring these topics to the public and to then do my best in seeking a resolution," she wrote.

Guill, who owns a cleaning company and moved to Virginia Beach from an Illinois area that allowed Pumpkin, said she understands the doubts. When her ex-husband first proposed getting a pig, she was skeptical, too.

"I was like, 'We're going to have a pig in the house? Really? Are you serious?' " she said. But Guill ended up with custody of Pumpkin, and she said she's now determined to keep the pig. "I'm feeling very optimistic about it."

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