Pigs have long gotten a bad rap. The four-legged ungulates are considered so messy and stinky that they're synonymous with slovenliness: Eat too much and you're pigging out. Forget to clean up and your house is a pig pen. And when is a pig happiest?
That stigma is perhaps no greater than in New York City, where high-rises and apartments are hardly hospitable to pigs. The city's health code forbids keeping them as pets, forcing pig owners to operate in secret — or boldly take the risk an unhappy neighbor might squeal.
"People think it's weird and a novelty but they're really sweet and really smart animals," says Timm Chiusano, who keeps two potbellied pigs on the ground floor of his three-story brownstone in Brooklyn. "They can be fantastic pets."
Chiusano, 35, moved to his current home after raising his pets from piglets in a condo high-rise, where a neighbor once raised a stink about them piddling in the lobby.
Now his difficulties are largely logistical. Though billed as "mini pigs" when he got them, five-year-old Cholula and Runtly now weigh in at 200 and 70 pounds, respectively. He renovated his home with the pigs in mind, putting their beds and food on the first floor (their legs are too stubby to climb stairs) and installing special flooring that holds up to hooves. He's also constantly resodding his tiny backyard because the grass is essentially a salad bar for swine.
Queens resident Danielle Forgione is scrambling to sell her second-floor apartment after a neighbor complained about 1-year-old Petey the pig to the co-op board. In November and December she was issued city animal violations and in January was told by both the city and her management office that she needed to get rid of the pig.
"He's part of our family," says Forgione, whose short and stocky pet weighs in at nearly 40 pounds, stands 15-inches tall and measures 21-inches long, snout to tail. "This is our pet. He's not harming anybody. He goes to the vet every six months, he gets his hooves clipped, he gets de-wormed, he gets his shots."
Forgione, 33, purchased Petey as a therapeutic animal after losing her brother in a motorcycle accident last year. Also, one of her six children is allergic to dog hair, so Petey's coarse, human-like hair is ideal.
"He sleeps in the same bed as my youngest," she says, adding that Petey wears medium sized clothes she buys from online dog-clothing stores. "And he's not aggressive either."
But the city put its foot down and earlier this month denied her petition to amend the city's health code to create an exception for "domesticated mini pigs." She's exhausted her appeals and has until later this summer to remove Petey or authorities will do it for her.
City officials say pigs are a public health risk because they cannot be vaccinated for rabies and can become aggressive, especially during their first few years. Since 2008, there have been 89 illegal animal violations — but the violations database doesn't differentiate animals by type so there's no way to know how many of those violations were for pigs.
"Pigs are hard to police," says Salvatore Pernice, a Staten Island veterinarian who recently flouted the health code to purchase his 9-month-old mini-pig Albert from a breeder in Texas for $950. He picked him up at the Newark Airport and brought him back to his home where he's able to enjoy a backyard and gets along fine with Pernice's other pets, a cat and two dogs.
"I do think it's probably better to live in a place where they are able to root, graze and be a pig," says Pernice, 50, who lives in a detached house with a large yard.
Exactly how many people own pigs in the city is unclear. But many connect online, creating Facebook pages for their pigs and swapping photos. One Brooklyn pig named Franklin is dressed up in Mets baseball gear and has more than 1,000 likes on his Facebook page.
Pig lovers also hope to overturn the city's ban.
They point to the case of Mayor Michael Bloomberg's daughter, Georgina, who adopted a pig from an animal shelter in New Jersey after Superstorm Sandy and brought it to Gracie Mansion on Thanksgiving Day. A spokesman for the mayor says she learned it was illegal and took it back to her home in Florida the next day.
Pig activists' strongest hope may be with New York State Sen. Tony Avella, who last month held a news conference for Petey and has called the city health commissioner to plead the pig's case — so far to no avail.
For Petey's owners, whether they live in New York City or have to move away won't change what has become a life-altering devotion to pigs.
"I've had a slab of bacon in the freezer for I don't know how long," Forgione says. "I just can't bring myself to eat it."