(CN) – A homeowners association took a poke at a pig, and the piglet’s family is fighting back in court. The legal battle hinges on whether Wilbur the miniature Vietnamese potbelly pig is livestock, as the HOA says, or a pet. “We’re in discovery,” the pig’s lawyer said, amazed that it’s come to this. “We are scheduling depositions with our expert.”
It all started when Alex Sardo bought Wilbur (pictured) as a Christmas present for his wife.
“I have this thing about pigs,” Missy Sardo told Courthouse News. “I don’t know why, I’ve just always loved pigs.”
Wilbur, 7 weeks old when he arrived last Christmas to the Sardos’ home in Spring, Texas, outside of Houston, quickly became a member of the family.
“He slept in the bed with us until he got too big,” Missy Sardo said. Goldie, their golden retriever-Labrador mix “just loves him,” and so do the Sardos’ children, who are 15 and 6.
But the HOA – The Thicket at Cypresswood Community Improvement Association – says Wilbur is not a pet, he’s livestock.
Citing its “Covenants, Conditions and Restrictions,” the HOA evicted Wilbur in July, and threatened the Sardos with a $200 fine for each day they keep him.
Missy Sardo says she invited the HOA’s four-member board “to come over so they could see Wilbur & how he lives,” but “they didn’t want to sit down and discuss it. It amazes me that they’re being so stubborn about this. Most of the people in the neighborhood didn’t even know we had him until all this came out.”
So the Sardos sued the HOA in Harris County Court, citing the Covenants, Conditions and Restrictions, which state: “household pets (not to exceed two of each category) may be kept … but only for the use and pleasure of the Owner of such Lot.”
The Sardos’ attorney, Mitchell Katine, who specializes in HOA law, wrote in his request for declaratory judgment: “Wilbur is a household pet and not ‘livestock,’ as demonstrated by the following:
“A. The definition of ‘Livestock’ refers to animals raised in an agriculture setting to produce commodities such as food, fiber and labor. Potbelly pigs are not raised for food, fiber or used for farm labor.
“B. The State of Texas assesses taxes to the purchase of potbelly pig chow because such chow is not considered by the State of Texas as livestock feed.
“C. Potbelly pigs are sold in pet stores, not livestock auctions.”
Times being what they are, one might think the tax argument would be persuasive in Texas. But apparently not.
“The defendant Association has demanded that the plaintiffs remove Wilbur from the property. If not, the Association has threatened a lawsuit where the Association will seek to recover all court costs, and civil damages of up to $200.00 per day for each day that Wilbur stays with his family,'” according to the Sardos’ original complaint.
The HOA’s managing agent did not respond to a phone call and email from Courthouse News.
On its Internet home page, The Thicket at Cypresswood says the average size of its 253 homes is 3,400 square feet, “and the average lot size is a generous 9,600 square feet. The homes are characterized as ‘Executive’ … Price range of the homes are $210,000 to $380,000.”
Wilbur’s plight has been reported by the Houston Chronicle and KHOU-TV/Channel 11 in Houston, neither of which managed to coax a comment from the HOA either.
Missy Sardo told Courthouse News that the HOA offered to compromise at first, saying that if her family got 51 percent of HOA members to sign a petition supporting Wilbur, the Sardos could keep him. But after she went door to door collecting signatures, the HOA withdrew the offer.
Sardo, whose family has lived in their home for 6 years, says she has no idea why the HOA is being so tough about a 70-pound piglet who will grow to no more than 125 lbs., “about the size of an English bulldog.”
Attorney Katine doesn’t understand it either.
“Wilbur doesn’t bother anybody,” Katine said. “He sleeps and stays in the house.
“I practice in the area of homeowners association law. The other attorneys who do HOA law think this is ridiculous.”
Vietnamese potbelly pigs have been treated as pets, not livestock, ever since they were imported to the United States, according to Katine and his experts. The little guys don’t have enough body fat to be considered tasty.
One expert, Dr. Valerie Tynes, who has spoken at many veterinarians’ Potbellied Pig Conferences – there are such things – stated in Katine’s response to the HOA’s request for discovery that she “will give her opinion regarding Vietnamese potbellied pigs being ‘household pets’ within the meaning of the applicable deed restrictions and commonly accepted as such. Wilbur is a domestic animal commonly and traditionally kept in homes as a pet and is not wild, semi-wild, or a semi-domesticated animal.”
Missy Sardo said Wilbur, who is house-trained, is learning to walk on a leash, and will sit on command, though “he has a little hard time getting up sometimes.”
She says her only problem with Wilbur is that “he knows how to open cupboard doors. He’ll open one and slam it a couple of times if he wants me to pay attention to him.”
Wilbur’s personal vet, Dr. Bruce Meuth, of Baytown, who vaccinated and neutered the little fellow, wrote in a letter attached to Katine’s discovery document that “Vietnamese Potbellied Pigs (VPP) are not considered livestock by the standards of veterinary care. Although VPP share diseases with many domestic swine, the standard of care and treatment within the veterinary industry is entirely different. VPP are not considered a food animal (those animals consumed by humans) and are not traded, as domestic swine (i.e. not generally sold at livestock barns). Often VPP are simply called Pet Pigs.”
In his lawsuit, Katine wrote that he has a third expert, “Dr. Bob Rogers of Spring, Texas, a doctor of veterinary medicine, with over twenty (20) years experience working with potbelly pigs, and a past president and current deed restrictions chair of his own homeowners association, as an expert witness, who will testify as to the nature of Wilbur being a household pet and not livestock.”
Quite a bit of trouble over a little pig.
Asked why she was going to such lengths – for the pig or the principle? – Missy Sardo replied, “Both. It’s also that they [the HOA board] know nothing about it. They don’t know anything about potbelly pigs. Ever since they were introduced to the United States they’ve been pets.”
So the legal fight over Wilbur drags on.
“We are going to be doing depositions,” Katine said. “The Homeowners Association has not acquiesced. We offered to settle and they wouldn’t do it. … They want to make us work for it.”
Katine seeks only “a judicial declaration that plaintiffs’ Vietnamese potbelly pig named ‘Wilbur’ is a ‘household pet’ which may be kept by plaintiffs at the Subject Property and is not a violation of the applicable deed restriction.”
Missy Sardo said, “We’re not seeking damages, but if we win the case we are going to ask for lawyer’s fees.”
Her 6-year-old son Michael told KHOU Channel 11, “I just like playing with him.” If the HOA takes Wilbur away, Michael said, “I will feel sad because he’s so cute and I’ll miss him.”
Wilbur has a Facebook page, with, at last count, 5,453 friends who say they like him.
Missy Sardo says suspects that at least one member of the HOA board is a secret Wilbur sympathizer, but “They’re putting up a united front. They sort of have that Stepford Wives mentality.”
She added, “As long as I can afford it, we’re going to fight. Just because he’s not a dog or a cat doesn’t make him less of a pet.”