The New White Meat

Meet Petunia, hearty eater, beloved pet, neighborhood favorite, and a 300-pound pig

Petunia was eating cherries off the sidewalk about 3:00 a.m. when the first police car pulled up. Then another cruiser arrived. Then another. "There had to be twelve to fifteen cop cars, unmarked and marked. They were everywhere!" recalls Mark Digulimio, who awoke to red and blue flashing lights. He rushed outside his west Dade home, fearing the worst, but Petunia was cooperating with authorities. "A detective asked me whether it was okay to give her Oreos. I'm like, 'Of course! You think she's on a diet? She can have the whole pack, I don't care.'"

Call a cop "pig" and you might get arrested. Call Petunia one and she'll just keep eating, because that's what she is -- a Portuguese potbellied pig. Like hundreds of other porkers purchased during a short-lived trend of pet pig procurement, she might have wound up as so much ham. Instead, weighing in at nearly 300 pounds, eight-year-old Petunia is a beloved and slightly drowsy member of her community along Blue Road. For six years she has kept the place from going completely to the dogs (or cats, or goldfish). At the same time, she has made the acquaintance of her human neighbors, who sometimes emerge from their homes to gawk during her evening constitutionals.

Starting in the mid-Eighties, people across America began paying hundreds or even thousands of dollars for these "yuppie puppies," as they were dubbed in the press. But many of the swine, sold by deceitful back-yard breeders, soon exceeded their promised puppylike poundage. Droves of potbellied pig owners in Florida and other states took their flabby friends to animal rescue centers. Many unlucky oinkers wound up at slaughterhouses.

Abandonment of pet pigs in Miami started long ago and peaked in 1996, according to Pat Knox, director of the Wee Care Wildlife Rehabilitation Center in the Redland, among the largest shelters for orphaned mammals in Dade. Two years ago the center received two to three calls per month from people who wanted to drop off their potbellied pigs. Now the center gets about one such call per month, she says. Wee Care finds new homes for pigs, mostly on farms.

Orphanhood, or worse, could easily have been Petunia's fate too. Digulimio's great-aunt Mildred, who died last year, paid a breeder in Ocala about $800 for the animal in 1990. The perky little piglet arrived at Mildred's home by freight. "That pig was guaranteed to be itsy-bitsy," muses 32-year-old Digulimio through the smoke of a cigar. He is seated in a lawn chair on his driveway one recent evening. Nearby languishes slit-eyed, cylinder-nosed Petunia, her black belly spread on the grass like an overstuffed garbage bag. Digulimio's wiry dad Dawson, sitting next to him on the front steps, remembers when she used to perch on his stomach and watch television.

But Mildred was deceived. Petite Petunia blossomed to dimensions beyond Mildred's wildest dreams. By the time the pig was two, she had topped more than 100 pounds. Mildred's forearms were perpetually bruised from trying to control the incorrigible beast.

All that pushing came to a final shove the day Petunia shredded Mildred's linoleum floor, then ate all the pieces. "The pig was just too much for her," explains Digulimio, between puffs on his Romeo and Julieta. "After the floor incident, and the bruising up of her arms, the pig was just getting a little too big for her. We took Petunia in."

A lesser man would have dumped the animal, observes Barbara Baker, secretary of the North American Potbellied Pig Association, based in Ruskin, Florida, near Tampa. A weight problem is a lame excuse for abandonment, she argues. "So the pig got a lot bigger than you thought it was going to get. That doesn't change the pig any. If your wife gained fifteen pounds, would you divorce her? I mean, where is the sense of integrity here?" Baker huffs.

And if your wife/pig gained a whopping 250 pounds? Well, Digulimio is no male chauvinist pig. He is committed to Petunia. That goes for his wife Margarita, too. They may spend another twenty years with Petunia if she reaches her expected three-decade lifespan. "We love animals. We're fans of them. They're better than a lot of people sometimes," Digulimio reckons.

Some county officials, however, think Petunia and her ilk are sus scrofa non grata. "Pigs are not permitted in unincorporated Dade County whether the property is zoned single-family residential or agricultural," snorts Jose Rivero, a county zoning processor. But Eimir Bobonis, a zoning enforcement officer in the same department, says the pig policy is not really so ham-fisted: "For the last seven years, if we go to a place and they have a potbellied pig, we haven't done anything," he concedes.

If Rivero had his way, Petunia would not have been around to dress up as a rabbit last Halloween. Or a zebra the year before. Well, half a zebra --Digulimio's wife Margarita applied stripes to only one of Petunia's black hairy sides before the cool white paint roused her from a deep sleep and she ran off. Yet Petunia inspired candy-grubbing kids to turn over their spoils to a pig with a sweet tooth. "Halloween's great," says Digulimio. "The kids get to enjoy her. They get to give her some candy. She's real docile around them."

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