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Swine O' the Times

updated 08/09/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/09/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

HIS PIGS, HE HAS SAID, ARE "COOL." WHAT'S more, they don't smell, and they don't get fleas. For these reasons, among others, America's primo Pig Lover, Beverly Hills, 90210's Luke Perry, won a victory against a handful of pignacious Southern California neighbors on July 17. Despite their protests, the city of Los Angeles granted Perry a permit to keep his three Vietnamese potbellied pigs on his half-acre Tarzana spread. "There is intelligence in their eyes," Luke has said of his porcine pals. "Pigs are very sweet."

Dale Riffle, 31, cofounder with Jim Brewer, 40, of the Potbellied Pig Interest Group and Shelter (P.I.G.S.), might agree—but only up to a point. He claims that America's once trendy household pets are not the cuddly little darlings they're cracked up to be. In fact they can be positively boorish. Though smaller than domestic pigs (which can weigh in at more than 700 lbs.), some of America's 250,000 or so potbellies, says Riffle, bear a closer resemblance to their tusked and feral forefathers in the jungles of Vietnam than pet-shop owners are letting on. "There's this misconception that these pigs are going to be 30 lbs. and can live in a condo," he says. "At 15 months, instinct takes over, and they start acting like pigs. By the time the pigs are 2, their owners realize they are not house pets." Among the problems: If not neutered, the male potbellied pigs grow tusks, and if not purebred, they can bulk up to 200 lbs. And while undeniably smart, they can also be aggressive when confined, says Riffle. They have been known to charge visitors, chew through walls and bite babies. As a result desperate owners are abandoning them lo humane societies and slaughterhouses.

Riffle himself became involved in swine saving three years ago. It was then that a college intern at Co-Op America, a nonprofit group in Washington, where Riffle works promoting socially and environmentally responsible businesses, told him about Rufus, a troublesome potbelly whose owners were at wit's end. Riffle, who grew up on a farm, brought the pig home. Later he bought a five-acre spread in Charles Town, W.Va., a 1½-hour commute from D.C. Before long other outcast potbellies, each with a Pigensian story of his own, joined Rufus. Now there are 54—and a waiting list for Riffle's hog heaven. Classical music is piped into the barn all day ("It calms them down," says Riffle), and the pigs enjoy pens, sheds and children's plastic swimming pools, usually no more than three to an amenity. Clifford, a former college "frat pig," still bears scars on his back from the halter that had been slipped on him as a piglet, but which was never removed until Riffle rescued him 75 lbs. and a year later. Amanda, a pig who slept like a lamb in bed with her owners, turned jealous when their newborn arrived; one day she put her mouth around the baby's leg—and was banished to Riffle's sanctuary. And Trayf (Yiddish for nonkosher) was only supposed to grow to 50 lbs., according to the exotic-pet store in Arizona where she was purchased. By the time Trayf hit 226. heartbroken owner Carol Ostrov of New Rochelle, N.Y., had no choice but to send her off to P.I.G.S.

Ostrov believes, as does Riffle, that buyers are being duped by unscrupulous dealers—charging $400 to $800 per piglet—who deliberately withhold the truth about a potential pet's lineage. According to Dino Soriano, chairman of the Florida Potbellied Pig Association, a purebred potbelly will stay under 100 lbs. if fed properly. Whatever Trayf's problem, Ostrov says, "I was naive. All this unhappiness didn't have to happen."

Riffle agrees: "We tell people, 'If you want a perfectly manicured yard and a pet inside the house that is smaller than a medium-size dog, you don't want a pig.' "

MARJORIE ROSEN
NINA BURLEIGH in Washington

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