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Man fights town to keep potbellied pig as his emotional support animal

The town he lives in does not allow farm animals within city limits, so he's been to court more than a dozen times vowing to keep her.
Wyverne Lenny Flatt says his pig Ellie is like a dog, but “way smarter," and helps him deal with stress.
Wyverne Lenny Flatt says his pig Ellie is like a dog, but “way smarter," and helps him deal with stress. Courtesy Lenny Flatt
/ Source: TODAY

Wyverne Lenny Flatt says he can’t imagine his life without Ellie. The affectionate 100-pound potbellied pig helped him cope with the stress of a divorce and the death of his mother, he explained, calling her an emotional support animal.

The village he lives in sees it differently. Flatt said he’s been engaged in a two-year legal battle with Canajoharie, New York, which considers the pig a farm animal and therefore not allowed to be kept in town.

Flatt said he’s been to court 13 times and has another court date on Dec. 14, charged with illegally harboring a farm animal in the town limits.

Ellie is housetrained and likes to lounge on the couch.Courtesy Lenny Flatt

Canajoharie Mayor Jeff Baker said the village presently had no comment on the case. Meanwhile, Flatt vowed to keep fighting to keep Ellie.

“To me, she can almost sense when you’re having a bad day because she’ll come up and wag her tail and give you nudge and want you to pet her behind her ear,” Flatt, a 54-year-old carpenter, told TODAY.

“I don’t think people understand how affectionate they are … you don’t think about when you come home what actually gives you peace — it’s your pets, it’s who is at your house. I don’t live with anybody, so she’s provided that.”

Flatt has had Ellie since she was a “little bitty piglet” gifted to him by a friend in 2017 when he was living in South Carolina. He took her with him when he moved to Canajoharie, a village of about 2,000 people in upstate New York. Leaving her behind was not something Flatt considered as he coped with his divorce and death of his mom.

“All the tough stuff I was going through, she was a sweet little pig,” he said. “She was just good to have around.”

Ellie is like a dog, but “way smarter” — she’s playful, likes to snuggle and loves to sit on the couch, Flatt said. She’s housetrained and can use a litter box. She lives in his house, but is allowed to go in and out as she wants to, weather permitting. Flatt has also built her a barn outside, but keeps her inside his house when it gets cold.

His backyard is fenced in and private — “she doesn’t bother anybody, nobody can even see her and they can’t get to her... she doesn’t bite, she doesn’t make a big mess, she doesn’t really do anything,” he said.

Ellie is registered as an emotional support animal.Courtesy Lenny Flatt

Flatt said the town found out about the pig when applied for a building permit about two years ago. An official who came over saw Ellie and wrote him a citation since no farm animals or domestic livestock are allowed in the village. The legal back-and-forth has been going on since.

Canajoharie leaders have scheduled a public hearing for Dec. 7 on a proposed animal law to address “a surge of violations” of the current provisions and to clarify the policy.

The village is “committed to making reasonable accommodations” for residents who need service, therapy or assistance animals, the proposed law states, including keeping an “unusual animal” as a companion or emotional support animal if a doctor deems it necessary.

The case is the latest chapter in the controversy over emotional support animals. Perhaps the most high-profile battle — between airlines and air travelers over which critters passengers could bring on board for their mental health — raged for years until the Department of Transportation ruled last year that dogs were the only animals defined as service animals.

Colleges have seen a “sharp increase” in students who want emotional support animals to live with them in dorms, according to Inside Higher Ed.

Critics say it can be easy to go online and have a pet certified as an emotional support animal. A recent NBC2 investigation in Florida found that after paying a fee to a website offering ESA certification, no proof or doctor’s visit was required to get the paperwork.

The Americans with Disabilities Act protects service animals, but doesn’t cover emotional support, therapy, comfort or companion animals because they have not been trained to perform a specific job or task.

Ellie the pig is registered as an emotional support animal, but Flatt said he didn’t think potbellied pigs should even need that paperwork in order to be considered a pet.

Ellie "is just kind of a very relaxed pig," Flatt said.Courtesy Lenny Flatt

“She’s there to keep me from being stressed,” he noted. “This whole thing is over because their statute says (she’s a) farm hog and that’s not what I have. So I’ve decided to fight it and here I am.”