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culture

U of T Student and Pig Seek Downtown Apartment

Toronto's rental apartment market is difficult to crack—especially if your household pet is unusual.

Otis (left) and Alex (right).

Given Toronto’s vicious rental market, just owning a cat or a dog can make it difficult to find a place to live downtown. In Ontario, “no pets” clauses in lease agreements are unenforceable. In practice, many landlords keep pets out by carefully screening renters.

But at least one pet owner scouring the classifieds right now is in a predicament even worse than the usual. Her animal companion is Otis, a miniature pig.

Alex (who asked that we withhold her last name and some other identifying information) is a 21-year-old first-year University of Toronto student. She currently lives with her mother and her sister in her childhood home, in a part of Toronto that is far from downtown. For two months, she has been searching for her first apartment. Ideally, it would be an affordable place near U of T where both she and Otis could live, with access to a backyard where the pig could frolic and graze freely.

Landlords, so far, have not been understanding.

“I’ve probably talked to around 100 people by email,” said Alex. She now tells prospective landlords about Otis before she arranges to meet them. In two months of searching, she has toured about 15 apartments.

“The only place that actually was going to rent to me was dingy and grungy and had holes in the walls, and flooded. It was not a good thing,” she said. She’s hoping to find something on the main floor of a house, or in a basement.

In desperation, she turned to Craigslist, where she posted a plaintive want ad titled: “I have a pet pig. Who will rent to me?”

Alex believes her difficulties stem from the common assumption that pigs like Otis are dirtier and more destructive than less unusual types of household pets. She insists that these are misconceptions.

A few things about Otis:

He’s adorable. At a little over a year old, he’s about the size of a basset hound. He has a coat of wiry black and white hair—mostly gone at the moment, because of seasonal shedding. When you pet him, he oinks softly and pokes his mottled black snout out at you. He likes belly rubs.

He’s litter trained. Inside Alex’s mother’s kitchen is a plastic litterbox, reinforced with plywood to keep Otis from flipping it with his snout. He uses it daily.

He can also obey commands of the “sit, stay” variety. He goes for walks on a leash. And he’s friends with Hunter, the family dog. They beg for treats together.

Otis is also illegal in Toronto. Pigs, along with other barnyard animals, are specifically prohibited as pets under City bylaws. Keeping one is punishable by a fine of up to $5,000. This is why Alex doesn’t want her last name divulged.

“I really love him. I can’t give him up. I just can’t do it,” she said. “He’s like my baby.” (She does eat pork. The irony is not lost on her.)

Alex got Otis as a piglet, in June 2011, from a breeder in Orangeville. She had wanted her own pig since childhood. “She has loved pigs all her life,” said Alex’s mother, whose name is Barb. “Her room was pigs. She had these little pig figurines, stuffed animals. Every birthday, every Christmas, she would get something pig related.”

Miniature pigs are still relatively new to the market, and breeders don’t quite have the genetics down pat. In the UK—where, if Google is any indication, pet pigs are far more popular than they are here—the press is full of tabloidy accounts of innocent buyers who took home so-called mini pigs, only to watch them grow until they weighed 300 pounds or more.

Pigs can also be challenging to control, because they’re both smart and strong. Otis, if left to his own devices, is able to open a refrigerator and eat all the fruits and vegetables he finds inside. Alex and her mother use a heavy-duty child safety gate to prevent that from happening.

When he was younger and more prone to temper tantrums, Otis would even occasionally snack on the living room couch. It still bears the bite marks.

And he’s emotional. Alex described his whiny spells in a tone of voice reminiscent of an exasperated older sister. The pig likes to lay with his head in her lap, and he becomes sulky when he’s pushed away. He makes a high, keening sound when Alex strokes his head.

Alex’s mother Barb seems as though she, too, will be happier when the apartment search is over. The pig was not her idea. “Sometimes he is annoying,” she said.

If you have any leads on pig-friendly apartments, you can send them to us and we’ll forward them along.

CORRECTION: September 25, 2012, 7:50 PM This post originally mischaracterized the legality of “no pets” clauses in lease agreements. They aren’t illegal, as originally stated. But they are unenforceable.

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