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Emotional support or support? American man fights to keep pet pig

CANAJOHARIE, NY – Ellie, the belly pig, snuggles up with Wyverne Flatt as he watches TV and sometimes rolls back and forth to let him pet her belly. The 110-pound pig, Flatt said, is “family,” an emotional support animal that helped him through his divorce and mother’s death.

Officials in his suburban village of Canajoharie see it very differently. To them, the pig was a farm animal that Flatt was illegally keeping in the village.

The case could soon go to criminal trial. But it has attracted the attention of pig farmers, who believe animals should be more respected as companions rather than just a source of food.

“I could never have dreamed of giving away someone who was part of my family,” Flatt said recently as he patted a pig in his kitchen. “She’s very smart. She’s smarter than my dogs. I think she can take care of you when you’re feeling bad because she’ll want to come and give you a hug.”

Ellie is a knee-high Vietnamese pig with black fur and hooves that clatter on the floor as she emerges from her kitchen plate. Flatt was living in South Carolina when he received the pig in 2018, when it was “the size of a shoe”.

She came north with Flatt in 2019 when he moved to Canajoharie, a modest village on the Mohawk River dominated by the shell of the former Beech-Nut food factory.

Flatt, 54, bought a luxury home near the village’s mall with plans to remodel it and possibly open a restaurant on part of the ground floor. He also has two dogs and two cats.

A village cryptographer told Flatt he was illegally staying with Ellie in October 2019 during a visit to get a building permit. When the village noticed Ellie was still there six months later, Flatt was officially informed that he was violating a local code that forbids livestock farming in the village. According to court records, breaking the zoning code is a misdemeanor under state law.

Both sides have dug in since.

Flatt says the village is choosing his pig, which he says is clean and smart. Several of his neighbors signed affidavits saying they liked Ellie.

Village Mayor Jeff Baker said the council had no comment while the court case was pending. However, a lawyer for the village wrote in a court application that the pig posed a danger to public health. She argued that if “every citizen openly mocked the Village’s zoning rules … then we would live in a lawless society.”

Ellie’s fate may depend on federal housing guidelines that say municipalities should provide a “reasonable accommodation” when a person can demonstrate an animal provides emotional support to a disability-related need. Flatt’s attorney argued that his client met that test, saying Ellie allowed Flatt to quit and deal with his anxiety.

The village argued in court filings that it was willing to offer reasonable terms, but Flatt never met the standard.

A note from a nurse practitioner saying Ellie helped Flatt quit smoking is disputed. And while he kept in his wallet a laminated card illustrated with a photo of Ellie saying she was a “registered mental support animal”, the village attorney said it was taken online for a fee with no formal legal process.

“The defendant has provided no legal proof that he is a person with a disability, and there is no evidence that his disability was remedied by having an emotional support animal, as well as the particular – a pig – is the only suitable remedy for his condition,” attorney Kirsten Dunn wrote in a petition last year.

A trial was scheduled to begin on March 22, but was delayed. If convicted, Flatt could face jail or have the pig stolen, according to his attorney.

Affectionate support animals have grown in popularity in recent decades. After years of passengers bringing pigs, rabbits, birds and other animals on board, federal transportation officials in 2020 say airlines no longer have to provide emotional support animals.

And Flatt isn’t the first pig owner to seek emotional support for breaking local housing laws.

In 2019, a family in the Buffalo suburb of Amherst were not allowed to have a bellied pig, named Pork Chop, which they assumed was the emotional support animal for their daughter-in-law. In 2018, an Indiana woman was asked to have her spirit support pig removed for similar reasons.

Although people in the United States have kept smaller pigs as pets for decades, their advocates say they are still seen by some as little more than pets.

Kathy Stevens, founder of the Catskill Animal Sanctuary for rescued farm animals and Flatt’s supporter.

However, many cities around the country allow people to keep pigs as pets. Some local laws sometimes require livestock pigs to be below the specified weight. Other laws only allow belly pigs.

Canajoharie passed a new law in January clarifying its laws on keeping animals in captivity, citing increased violations. Farm animals are still banned under the law, which sets out rules for residents looking for a reasonable place to live.

Flatt said he’s received offers from people to Ellie’s house outside the village, but he wants to fight to keep her.

“I hope this sets a precedent for people to start to understand that these are pets,” he said. “These are not things you go home and slaughter and eat.”

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