From Pig to Pet: A Tale of Local Lawmaking

Starky the pot-bellied pig

The City Commission members were shuffling papers and whispering to each other. The mayor cleared his throat and positioned his microphone; the murmur filling the crowded room drew to a hush as a man dressed in a fedora and tweed suit stepped up to the podium.

“Mr. Mayor,” he said, “Starky is my best friend. Please don’t send me home tonight to tell him that the people of Lawrence don’t want him in the city, because nothing could be further from the truth.”

About a year ago, my friend Ehren Penix acquired a somewhat unusual pet: a potbellied pig. At first it seemed that everyone was in shock at the novelty of having a tiny pet pig. All of our friends constantly asked Ehren to see the pig, and a predictable round of “aww” always ensued. People on the street would stop their cars in amazement and shout: “Is that a PIG?”

But it wasn’t long before the fun ended. Ehren and I returned to his house one day from school to find his roommate waiting with a business card from animal control. To our surprise, we discovered that it was not legal to own a potbellied pig within the Lawrence city limits. As aspiring law students, we checked the laws in preparation for acquiring the pig and found no mention of the word “pig” in the Lawrence City Code. However, the city code does not exhaustively list the animals that are prohibited. Instead, the city lists only those animals that are allowable as pets, and the code excluded them without mentioning them.

Starky the pot-bellied pigAs the treasurer and president of the University of Kansas School of Law chapter of the Student Animal Legal Defense Fund, Ehren and I knew right away that we were the perfect people to confront this issue and do whatever it took to make sure that Starky the pig, now a beloved friend and family member, would not be removed from his home.

As we had learned in law school, one of the best ways to start attacking a problem that is relatively unfamiliar to you is to seek the advice of someone with experience in the field. Katie Bray Barnett, KU Law Class of 2010 and KU SALDF president the previous year, was the obvious choice. Knowing Katie’s unmatched devotion to animals, it came as no surprise that she immediately and enthusiastically responded to my plea for help.

With that, we began the process of petitioning the city to amend the animal ordinance to allow Starky to stay in his home. We collected letters of support from local and national organizations like the Lawrence Humane Society and the National Animal Legal Defense Fund. We emailed the City Commissioners. We went to municipal court and explained our situation to the judge. (We knew we were in good hands when the judge was reading through the docket and cautiously stated: “Ehren Penix. You are accused of … owning a pig?”)

After a few months of working with the city prosecutor and petitioning the City Commission with the help of Katie Bray Barnett, we were finally able to get the issue on the agenda for the weekly City Commission meeting. By this time, word had gotten out around Lawrence about Starky and his fight to stay in his home. Ehren and Starky appeared on the front page of the Lawrence Journal-World, and 6News Lawrence set up an interview for the night before the City Commission meeting.

Ehren and I prepared and submitted a memo on the issue to the City Commission, and we both appeared to voice our support of the proposed change to the ordinance. Ehren was also able to arrange a group of people to come speak to the City Council on Starky’s behalf. Anthony Barnett, Katie Bray Barnett’s husband, represented the Lawrence Humane Society and expressed their belief that Starky was not in danger of being harmed by living in a domestic environment. Ehren’s next-door neighbor brought his daughter and her friend to testify about Starky’s qualities as a great pet and friend.

The City Commission, very much to their credit, approached the proposed change to the law rationally and even-handedly. The mayor stated that the city enacted the list of animals excluded from prohibition to protect the residents of the city without having to predict in advance every new type of dangerous pet that someone may acquire. But, as some will remember in the context of hedgehogs, the city has a policy of being open to requests from residents to add new animals to the list of those allowable within the city. The Commission found in favor of Starky, and the new ordinance was enacted on March 6, 2012.

It was exciting to help create a new local ordinance and very rewarding to see the effects firsthand. In acknowledgment of the dedication and love of animals displayed by my treasurer, I have decided that my time as president of the group has come to a close. Ehren Penix is running for president of the KU SALDF for the 2012-13 school year, and I have great hopes for the future of the group.

Kevin Sauer, 2L and president, KU Student Animal Legal Defense Fund