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March 8, 1999

PORTLY PET PROBLEM

By Steve Friess Review-Journal

Boris is in a funk.

He wanders aimlessly around the living room of a sparkling, neat Henderson home snorting and grunting. Plainly, he's out of sorts.

To get him to notice the houseguests, his owners pour a box of Frosted Flakes on the rug. He sucks it up as reliably as a Hoover, but even then there's no sizzle in his style.

Carrie, Boris' master, explains that her pet is depressed. His fraternal twin sister, Natasha, was euthanized two days earlier after falling ill to cancer.

But what Boris -- cute, cuddly, 250-pound Boris -- doesn't know is more worrisome. He may well be coming to grips with the loss of his companion, but Boris, too, is in danger. If the animal control officers of Henderson find him here, moping around the house, they've threatened to take him away and slay him.

Boris, a 3-year-old potbellied pig, lives on the wrong side of town. Or, rather, the wrong town. Henderson is one of the two municipalities in Clark County that makes it a crime for humans to love domesticated porkers.

The Henderson City Council soon may be hearing again from swine lovers, including the pro-pig politicians of Clark County, Las Vegas and Boulder City who have legalized the mammals and have had no significant problems. There's no such movement afoot in North Las Vegas, the other city to allow only kosher pets.

Potbellied pigs, miniatures of the traditional barnyard variety, became a trendy pet in the late 1980s after their import from Vietnam. Now there are about 200,000 in the United States, including more than 21,000 registered in Indiana alone, though the fad surrounding them has quieted.

"They're all uptight in Henderson," said veterinarian Andrea Straub, president of the Desert Potbellied Pig Club of Southern Nevada. Straub estimates there are about 1,000 potbellied pigs living in homes in Clark County.

"There hasn't been this huge overrun of pigs. The Henderson folks, well, they're kind of weird in that city."

The Clark County Commission legalized potbellied pigs as pets in September 1997 at the behest of Commissioners Erin Kenny and Mary Kincaid. Both had received requests from pig owners, some of whom brought their porcines to the county Government Center on leashes to support the move.

Since then, animal control officers have impounded only four that were stray or abandoned. That's down from the 22 impounded in 1996, the year before the new ordinance.

"It's really no big deal," said Kenny, who recalled some pork ribbing at the time of the ordinance. "They're really cute, and owners take really good care of them. People love 'em."

Trouble is, sometimes these little piggies cease to be cute. Pet owners buy them when they're infants of only a dozen pounds or so, but steadily feeding them can make them balloon within months to hundreds of pounds.

And they can turn mean, too. Mount Charleston resident Richard A. Roy discovered that in 1994 when his upstairs neighbor's pig charged him and chased him off a balcony. Roy, who broke his heel in the fall, is suing his former landlord, who allowed the pig on the property. The case is due to go to trial in the next year, Roy's attorney said.

"That's just bad training and care," said Straub, who runs a mobile clinic called Pigs R Us to make house calls for pigs. "People don't learn how to take care of them properly so they're not aggressive. They just equate food with love and feed them so much."

That argument doesn't carry much weight for Vicky Cameron, supervisor for Henderson Animal Control. Cameron said the city impounded 15 potbellied pigs in 1996, the most recent year for which she said figures are available.

Residents may petition the City Council for a zone variance to allow the pigs, but nobody has done so. Violators could be liable to a $1,000 fine or six months in jail, though typically the city simply demands removal of the pig.

"They're farm animals," Cameron said. "They're not animals that should be kept in residential neighborhoods. We do not define pigs as domestic animals."

Still, Henderson City Councilwoman Amanda Cyphers said the city is not actively prowling neighborhood streets for pork.

"Look, as long as the neighbors aren't complaining about it, we're not going to be the animal police," Cyphers said. "We're not going to sit there and look at what's going on in your household and see if you're abiding by the rules."

Tell that to Carrie, who is so fearful of arrest that she does not want her last name published. The owner of Boris, the late Natasha and 80-pound Peggy, Carrie says she chose to be a pig owner because her severe allergies prohibited her from having dogs or cats. Her neighbors don't seem to mind, she says, because sometimes their children play with them.

Thus, she and her animal-loving husband give the pigs free roam of the first floor of their home, feed them heaps of veggies and grain and rub their swollen bellies with love. A 3-by-5-foot litter box is available for indoor relief, with a patio door open at all times during the day because Peggy prefers outdoor plumbing.

Carrie acknowledges that sometimes pig owners mistreat the animals and lead them to bad behavior, noting that she adopted Peggy last year from a home where dogs and kids often ganged up on her.

Still, she insists they're not livestock.

"Do you know any livestock that refuses to sleep where it piddles and is particular about what you eat?" she asks. "At least our pigs aren't crapping on every lawn like the dogs are."

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