The Pig Who Loved People

He wasn’t what you’d expect in a pet—or even in a pig.

April 1992 RD ClassicsThe phone rang at Bette and Don Atty’s house in Johns­town, New York. It was a friend calling to ask if they’d like a pig.

“His name is Lord Bacon. He’s four months old, and he’s smarter than any dog,” the friend said to Don. “He adores people, and with Bette working at home, I thought she might like the company.”

For a year Don had stood by helplessly as his wife suffered from agoraphobia, a fear of open spaces and crowds, apparently triggered by stress at work. Even after she had quit her job, just going to the local mall could bring on an anxiety attack. She couldn’t leave the house unless Don was with her.

Now Bette was standing nearby, overhearing the conversation, and she shook her head no. “Think about it,” Don urged. “It’ll be good for you to have a special pet.”

Bette recalled reading in one of the many psychology books she had consulted about her condition that caring for another creature strengthens a person’s inner being. But could a pig help my nerves?

“All right,” she said reluctantly. “I suppose some farmer’ll take him if we have to get rid of him.”

Two hours later the owner deliv­ered Lord Bacon in a wire cage. He was a miniature variety who stood 14 inches high and 24 inches long. Shaped like a root­ beer keg on stilts, he weighed 45 pounds.

Don laughed when he saw him. “That snout looks like he ran into a wall doing 90!” Even Bette joined in: “I’ve got an old hairbrush with better-­looking bristles than these.”

When the cage was opened, Lord Bacon trotted out wagging his straight tail, looked around and headed for Bette. She knelt to greet him. He heaved himself up on his hind legs, laid his head on her shoulder and kissed her on the cheek with his leathery snout. She looked at the pig and, for the first time in a long time, smiled.

The rest of the day, Bette and Don watched as the pig bustled about, exploring the house. He sat up on his bottom and begged for a treat. He gently chewed on Don’s beard when Don put him on his lap. When they whistled, he came to them.

That night the pig tried to follow Bette and Don upstairs, but with his potbelly he couldn’t negotiate the steps. Bette made up a bed for him in the kitchen, then sat on the floor and stroked him. “It’s all right. We’ll be here in the morn­ing,” she told him.

The next morning, instead of dreading having to face another day, Bette was actually eager to see her new pet. Lord Bacon scrambled to greet her and rubbed against her leg. It was like being massaged with a Brillo pad. From then on, Bette was destined always to have this red rash of affection on her leg.

After breakfast the pig followed Bette into the small home office where she prepared tax returns and settled down beside her desk. Bette found that when she grew edgy, if she reached down and pet­ted him and said a few words, it made her feel calmer.

Very soon the pig was a member of the household. When Don brought home a doggy bed to put next to Bette’s desk, the animal looked it over and decided that, with some alterations, it would do nicely. He planted his hoofs, ripped open the tartan pillow, pulled out the stuffing and then crawled in­side the cover, content.

One evening when Bette and Don drew up their armchairs to watch television, the pig pushed a chair over with his snout and sat up in front of it, as if to say, “Hey, I want to be part of this too.” As he watched figures on the screen, his head bobbed from side to side.

Lord Bacon disliked loud noises. Bette’s phone hung on a post beside her desk, and the pig figured out that it stopped ringing when Bette picked it up. If Bette wasn’t there to answer it immedi­ately, he yanked the receiver off the hook, stood over it and grunted into the mouthpiece.

I wonder what my clients must think, Bette thought, only half­ amused.

One day a client came to see her about his tax return and was so charmed by her pet that he returned later with his children. Soon other neighbors were stop­ping by to see Lord Bacon. Finding this to be too formidable a name for such a friendly, small pig, the kids took to calling him Pigger, and Pigger he became from then on.

Once when a small group had gathered, Bette felt herself growing tense. Realizing they were all too fascinat­ed by the pig to look at her, however, she began to enjoy the company.

“It’s fun coming home from work now,” Don told Bette. “The first thing you say is, ‘Guess what Pigger did to­day. He pulled the blankets off the bed,’ or whatever, and we get to laughing and it feels like when we were first married.”

“You laugh,” Bette said, “but it wasn’t so funny when he locked me out this morning.” Pigger had fol­lowed Bette in and out of the house and had watched her close the door behind her. That morning as he went inside, he took the initiative himself—except that the door was on the latch and his mistress was still outside. Luckily, she had a spare key.

More and more Bette realized that Pigger was a superb mimic and would imitate whatever she and Don did. If she shook her head, Pigger would too. If she twirled, Pigger would twirl. Soon Bette was teaching tricks to her pig that few dogs would learn. His reward was dog biscuits.

In Pigger’s company Bette was beginning to be more like her old self—so much so that her father tried to persuade her to bring Pig­ger to a senior-citizens meet­ing. Bette demurred. “Pig­ger can run like the wind and feint like a soccer player,” she said, “but he hates a leash. He plants his feet and won’t walk. I’d look pretty silly, wouldn’t I, a grown lady dragging a pig?” The next night Don came home with a baby stroller.

“What’s that?” Bette demanded. “It’s a pig-mobile, so you can take Pigger to the seniors’ meeting.” Pigger loved the stroller. He sat up in it, blanket around his shoulders, green visor on his head, as Don pushed him about.

Bette finally agreed to take Pig­ger to the meeting. Her nerves tightened as she drove up. She turned off the motor and sat in the car, trembling. She stroked Pigger, seat-­belted beside her, and felt calmer. I’ve got to conquer my fears, she told herself. I can’t spend the rest of my life being afraid. She struggled out, settled Pigger in the pig-mobile and wheeled him into the building.

The seniors were intrigued. “What is that?” they asked. Bette lifted Pigger to the floor. He imme­diately singled out the oldest wom­an and trotted over to nuzzle her cheek. The other seniors broke into laughter and crowded around to pet him.

Bette found herself answering questions, at first haltingly, then with enthusiasm. She told the sen­iors that pigs are smarter than dogs and twice as clean. “Pigger loves it when I put him into the bathtub once a week for a good scrub,” she said.

To show off how smart he was, she called to Pigger and told him he was a handsome hog. Pigger strut­ted about proudly. Then she scold­ed him for being piggy. Pigger lowered his head in shame and, for good measure, let his tongue hang out. His audience cheered.

Word got around, and soon Bette and Pigger set out on what Don referred to as pig gigs. At a nearby nursing home, she wheeled Pigger from room to room to visit with the patients. In one, an old woman sat staring at her hands in her lap. Suddenly her head came up, and her face cracked in the beginning of a smile. She held out her hands, then wrapped her arms around herself. “What is it?” Bette asked. “Do you want to hug him?” An aide whispered to Bette that the woman had not smiled, spoken or taken an interest in anything since her husband died years before.

Bette picked up Pigger and let the old woman pet him. Pigger stayed as quiet as could be, with his ears cocked and his mouth drawn up in a grin.

On later visits, when Pigger came through the front door in his pig-mobile, the call would go out: “Pigger’s here!” A commotion would start in the halls—the squeak of wheelchairs, the tap ­tap of walkers, the shuffle of slippered feet—as the residents hurried to see him.

The more Bette saw of sick and helpless people, the more thoughts of her own illness faded away. “I used to hate myself,” she told Don, “but now I’m beginning to thank God every day for being me. Pigger is my therapy.”

One day it occurred to Bette that Pigger might carry a message to schoolchildren. Soon she faced an audience of youngsters and invited them to ask Pigger if he would ever take drugs. Pigger shook his head emphatically while grunting and snorting disgust at the idea. Asked if he’d stay in school and study hard, Pigger bowed low and nod­ded his head.

The children were curious about what Pigger liked to eat. “Dog biscuits, of course. Also beans, corn, carrots, apples and Cheerios. But the two things Pigger loves best are popcorn and ice cream. At the Dairy Queen, he gets his own dish of ice cream, which he eats neatly from a spoon,” Bette explained.

The kids’ com­ments about Pig­ger ranged from: “He feels like a pot scrubber,” to “He has cute ears,” to “He looks like my uncle.” One little boy, hugging Pigger, said wistfully, “I wish you could come home with me. I know you’d love me.” Bette had to hold firmly on the leash to keep Pigger from fol­lowing the boy.

Sometimes Bette and Don would be shopping in the supermarket, and from the next aisle a child’s voice would ring out: “There’s the pig’s mother and father!” An em­barrassed parent would be dragged over to be introduced to “the pig’s family.”

When strangers stopped, stared, and asked what Pigger was, Don explained, “To us, he’s a pig, but to him, he’s people.” Sometimes Don quoted Winston Churchill: “Dogs look up to us. Cats look down on us. Pigs treat us as equals.” And Pigger would confirm this by grunting.

In one year Bette and Pigger made 95 public appearances togeth­er, mostly before old people and children. Bette handled each occa­sion with poise and flair.

In July, Pigger was invited to attend the 1990 Fulton County, New York, Senior Citizens Annual Picnic. The day before, Bette opened the back door. “Why don’t you go out and cool off in your pool, Pigger?” she suggested.

Pigger trotted into the yard, and Bette went back to work. Half an hour later, something made her check on him. He was lying in his favorite napping spot in the shade of a barberry bush. He wasn’t breathing.

Bette felt panic coming on. She began to wail. No, I mustn’t carry on. Pigger never liked loud noises. She phoned the police to come take his body. She called two friends to keep her company until Don got home. Then she knew she was going to make it.

Pigger had succumbed to a pul­monary aneurysm. But Bette has her own theory on why he died. “I think Pigger had a heart so big, it just burst with all that love. He helped me become my old self, and he brightened so many other lives. There’ll never be another Pigger.”

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