Man battles to keep 'emotional support' pig Ellie in legal war

Wyverne Flatt said Ellie the Vietnamese pot-bellied pig is family to him and should be able to live in his home

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A man in New York is fighting to keep a pig he says is his emotional support animal.

Wyverne Flatt said Ellie the Vietnamese pot-bellied pig is family to him, but officials in the village of Canajoharie in New York state say the pig is a farm animal being kept illegally.

Their legal fight with Mr Flatt could go to trial next month. But Mr Flatt’s battle has already caught the attention of pig partisans who believe the animals should be respected more as companions instead of just being a food source.

Ellie the Pig
Ellie the Pig

Mr Flatt said the 110lb animal helped him through a divorce and the death of his mother.

“I could never dream of giving away somebody who’s part of my family,” Mr Flatt said recently, as he patted the pig in his kitchen.

“She’s very smart. She’s more intelligent than my dogs. I think she can kind of hone in on you when you’re feeling bad because she’ll want to come in and snuggle with you.”

Mr Flatt was living in South Carolina when he got the pig in 2018, when she was “about as big as a shoe”. The pig is now knee-high and weighs around 110lbs.

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

Mr Flatt, 54, bought a fixer-upper near the business centre of the village with plans to remodel it and maybe open a restaurant on part of the ground floor. He also has two dogs and two cats.

A village code officer told Mr Flatt he was housing Ellie illegally in October 2019 during a visit for a building permit request.

Ellie the Pig
Ellie the Pig

When the village noticed Ellie was still there six months later, Mr Flatt was formally notified he was violating the local code barring farm animals in the village. Violation of a zoning code is a misdemeanour under state law, according to court filings.

Both sides have dug in since then.

Mr Flatt said the village is picking on his pig, which he says is clean and clever. Several of his neighbours have signed affidavits saying they like Ellie.

Village mayor Jeff Baker said the board has no comment while the court case is pending. But a lawyer for the village wrote in a court filing that the pig is a potential public health hazard.

She argued that if “every citizen were to openly scoff at the Village zoning codes … we would live in a lawless society”.

Ellie’s fate could hinge on federal housing guidance that says municipalities should provide a “reasonable accommodation” when a person can demonstrate an animal provides emotional support for a disability-related need.

Mr Flatt’s lawyer argues that his client meets that test, saying that Ellie allowed Mr Flatt to get off his medication and cope with his anxiety.

The village has argued in court filings it is willing to make reasonable accommodations, but that Mr Flatt never met the standard.

A trial was scheduled to start on March 22, but has been delayed. If found guilty, Mr Flatt could face jail time or have the pig taken from him, according to his lawyer.

Emotional support animals have become common in recent decades. After years of passengers bringing pigs, rabbits, birds and other animals on planes, federal transportation officials in 2020 said airlines no longer had to accommodate emotional support animals.

Mr Flatt is not the first pig owner seeking emotional support to run afoul of local housing laws.

In 2019, a family in the Buffalo suburb of Amherst were not allowed to keep a pot-bellied pig, named Pork Chop, they said was an emotional support animal for their daughter-in-law. An Indiana woman was told in 2018 to get rid of her emotional support pig for similar reasons.

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

Kathy Stevens, founder of the Catskill Animal Sanctuary for rescued farm animals and a supporter of Mr Flatt, said: “There’s a disconnect in most people’s minds that even though these animals were imported originally as pets, they were never intended to be food. There’s still a lot of people who do that equation: Pig equals food.”

Still, many municipalities around America allow residents to keep pigs as pets. Some local laws sometimes specify pet pigs must be under a specified weight. Other laws allow only pot-bellied pigs.

Canajoharie approved a new law in January clarifying its laws on keeping animals, citing a surge in violations. Farm animals are still barred under the law, which spells out rules for residents seeking a reasonable accommodation.

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

“I’m hoping this sets a precedent that people start understanding that these are pets,” he said. “These are not something you go home and slaughter and eat.”