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Friends, Legislators Fight to Save NY Family's Support Pig

The pig has been recognized as an 'emotional support animal' for the Matteo family patriarch, who suffers from cancer

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    Great Kills resident Cristy Matteo says it's "heartbreaking" that the city won't allow her to keep her pet pig Wilbur, who is a recognized emotional service animal to her cancer-stricken father. (Published Thursday, Jan. 26, 2017)

    Wilbur is at the heart of conflict again, except this time he's not in a barnyard watching over "Charlotte's Web," he's on Staten Island.

    Reporters crowded the backyard of Cristy Matteo's Hylan Boulevard home. Friends, neighbors and fellow pig owners stood behind Matteo holding up homemade signs in support of the pig as she took her place at the podium. "Save Wilbur!" one sign said. 'Let Wilbur stay in his home!" read another.

    New York City has ordered the Great Kills woman to get rid of her pet pig, who has served as her father's therapy pet, by Jan. 31. Matteo, whose father has cancer, called the situation "heartbreaking," noting that the pig has become a member of the family since she brought him home from Utah five years ago. 

    "He's like my child," she said about the helpful hog. "He's very emotional, he's very caring."

    Matteo had her initial health violation dismissed last year by a judge who found that the Wilbur didn't qualify as a "wild animal." However, she said her case was overturned when it was brought to Manhattan.

    That's when the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene ordered the pig out of her home, otherwise he'd be seized by the city.

    Wilbur is so much of a comfort to her dad, the National Service Animal Registry has deemed him an "emotional support animal". Her father's oncologist has even said that he's helped keep his stress levels down, according to Matteo.

    "As soon as my father would walk into the house, Wilbur would lay down in front of him and my father would rub his belly for an hour just trying to take his mind off of the radiation treatment he had all day," she said. "He's no harm to anybody, he stays in the house 95 percent of the time wrapped up in a sleeping bag all day."

    A spokesperson from the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene said that the DOH issued several warnings to Matteo prior to issuing the August 2016 order.

    "The Health Department has been working with Wilbur's owner for a year now and we will continue to work with her as she transfers Wilbur to a sanctuary," the agency said in a statement Thursday. "While we can appreciate how emotional this issue can be, the Health Department's primary role is to protect public health."

    He added that she agreed to have Wilbur sent to a sanctuary and chose the location in November.

    The Department said the Board of Health mandated that pigs remain on the list of prohibited animals because there's no USDA-approved rabies vaccine for pigs.

    State Sen. Tony Avella called on Mayor Bill de Blasio to change the policy regarding pigs as support animals. He said that the city has failed to properly address the issue.

    "There are municipalities across the country that do allow these animals, so why is New York City behind the curve?" Avella said. 

    Avella says he proposed a state bill that would allow the state commissioner of the Department of Health to come up with regulations permitting municipalities to have support pigs, but the city council would need to mandate the bill for the proposition to take effect.

    The state senator from Queens, who announced his New York City mayoral bid last month, says he'll change the laws regarding pet pigs if he is elected.

    Staten Island legislators have also rallied behind the pig. The politicians sent a letter to the commissioner of the city Department of Health Wednesday requesting an exemption to allow Wilbur to stay put.

    People have signed an online petition to keep Wilbur in Staten Island. As of Thursday evening, the family need a little over 100 signatures away from their goal of 10,000 signatures by Jan. 31st.