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Pigs in Takoma Park highlight rise in suburban livestock

Mark Parisi keeps chickens and pigs at his home in Takoma Park. In suburban areas such as Montgomery County, it is not against the law to keep livestock.

Parisi's pigs arrived separately several months ago after he had gone looking for them on Craigslist. First came Myrtle, a "rescue pig" who was living in unpleasant conditions in Baltimore, Parisi said. Despite his devotion to Myrtle ("I tended to her every need," he said), he thought his new addition might prefer a porcine pal.

"Pigs are social animals," Parisi said. "When they are alone, they tend to get in trouble. They can develop psychoses."

A divided 'Berkeley East'

Parisi's neighbors in Takoma Park, a laid-back community sometimes called "Berkeley East" for its self-imposed ban on nuclear weapons and its granola sensibilities, are divided on the propriety of pigs. One neighbor, a vegetarian who asked not to be named for the sake of neighborhood peace, said he was worried about the pigs' potential to become someone's supper.

Neighbors may also have been put off by Parisi's turfless and muddy pig plot, or by visits from Myrtle and Merrill, who on two occasions burrowed under the fence to check out life on the other side.

"No one was hurt," Parisi said.

Shawnee and Paul Spitler, Parisi's next-door neighbors, lured the pigs back to Parisi's yard during one escape attempt by tempting them with carrots and old bread. Shawnee Spitler said she has no quarrel with Parisi and has been happy that the couple's sons, Ansel, 4 and Pascal, 2, have seen animals close up.

Other neighbors are not as forgiving. But county zoning inspectors, animal control officers and police who have visited over the past several months found nothing wrong. Their logs noted that Parisi had minimized any odor. Parisi estimates he routinely cleans up about five pounds of pig manure daily, using an anti-ammonia compound -- organic, he said -- to keep down the smell.

"Who knew?" said Jerry Ryan, who lives a few doors down from the pigs, and whose wife, Mary Ann, a lawyer, has been researching the county's law. "Pigs must have a strong lobby."

A fowl trend?

Parisi, who arrived in the Washington area in 1998 to attend American University, comes from a long line of livestock owners. He grew up on a farm in Branford, Conn., where his parents had horses and other animals. His uncle kept 200 pigs in the city limits of New Haven before he went to war in Korea.

Parisi had hoped to get his pigs butchered in Mount Airy and then smoke the meat in a backyard smokehouse, a plan he abandoned midconstruction because he could not comply with required setbacks. Now he hopes to use Merrill as a breeder. Myrtle, whom Parisi thought was a female, turned out to be a castrated male, so his future is a little murky.

Parisi also keeps six chickens in a coop in his garage. He cools them with a fan in the hot months and collects a couple of eggs each day.

He'd like to have them in the back yard with the pigs, but again, he bumped up against the setback rules. It's unfortunate, he says, because chickens are a bug patrol around pigs, feasting on pests that pigs tend to attract.

Elsewhere in Takoma Park, chicken ownership is on the rise. A group of families is organizing a chicken co-op and will have joint custody of several laying hens. Down the street from Parisi, Steve and Heather DeCaluwe are raising chickens in a backyard coop that they said meets county standards.

The four DeCaluwe chickens produce about two dozen eggs each week, which the couple often give to neighbors. The chickens spend their ample free time roaming the couple's lush vegetable garden.

"If they lay, they will cluck a little bit; if they are hungry, they will cluck a little bit; but other than that, they are pretty quiet," Heather DeCaluwe said.

Valerie Taylor, who led a successful pro-chicken movement last year in a Cincinnati suburb coincidentally named Montgomery, said chickens can be less obtrusive than a barking dog.

"They poop less than dogs do; they create less smell than dogs. I can almost guarantee if your neighbor has a dog, you know it," she said.

New digs for pigs

Some of Parisi's Takoma Park neighbors have created an extensive pig paper trail at county offices. In one response, County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) noted that Parisi was not violating the law. And despite county plans to revise its entire zoning law, there are no plans to redo the section on livestock.

"The zoning ordinance permits agricultural uses in most residential zones," Leggett's letter said.

But Parisi, who said he "doesn't want a war," is giving up. After a four-hour standoff with recalcitrant Myrtle and Merrill one recent weekend, he loaded them into a truck and carted them to his parents' house in Connecticut, where they are spending the summer.

Parisi's mother has grown particularly partial to Myrtle, probably giving the pig a pass on becoming pork chops.

Meanwhile, Parisi is pondering buying new digs for the pigs. He's looking for a small farm where they can roam and root. And he's thinking that once there, he could get more live-in livestock.

Maybe some more chickens. Possibly a goat or sheep, who make excellent lawn mowers. "Nothing major," he said. "Just a little diversification."

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