NEW YORK (AP) — In a city of high-rises and tiny apartments, pigs are found mainly on menus. Most New Yorkers would never consider making pets out of a barnyard animal that's synonymous with sloppiness.
The city's health code specifically forbids it, forcing pig owners in the nation's largest metropolis to keep their swine secret — or 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 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 years ago, 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.
Danielle Forgione is scrambling to sell her second-floor Queens 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 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," she says.
Forgione 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 sweaters 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, even smaller breeds that are kept as pets, 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 the animal up at the Newark Airport and brought him home, where he's able to enjoy a backyard. He 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, who lives in a detached house with a large yard.
Exactly how many New Yorkers own pigs is unclear. But many connect online, creating Facebook pages for their pets and swapping photos. One Brooklyn pig named Franklin is dressed up in Mets baseball gear on his Facebook page and has more than 1,000 likes.
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."