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Photo by Ash Daniel
From left to right: Grant, Joe, Kim and Mark Johnson walk their pet KuneKune pig, Tucker, outside of the family's recently sold Brandermill home.
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Photo by Ash Daniel
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Photo by Ash Daniel
Joe, 15, plays with Tucker in the Johnson family living room, where the 160-pound pig enjoys napping.
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Photo courtesy Johnson Family
Tucker celebrating Christmas in a Santa hat.
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Photo courtesy Johnson Family
Grant, now 9, posing with Tucker as a piglet.
Once upon a time in Brandermill, there was a pig named Tucker. Most of the time, Tucker spent his days like any other 160-pound house pig. He slept. He ate. And once in a while, he stepped outside to do his “official business.” Pretty standard pig stuff. Nothing that seemed worthy of a story on the nightly news.
But periodically through the last year, there he was: smiling and snorting in the spotlight. Why was this hooved homebody becoming famous? Did he do something terrible, remarkable or unbelievable? Not exactly. Tucker was simply being himself, which is usually not a problem ... unless you’re a pig who lives in Brandermill.
From the outside, the story of Tucker, his owners and their fight to stay together seemed like a one-hit wonder. It was one of those cheeky human-interest stories that reporters delivered with a smirk. Surely there couldn’t be anything of substance in a whimsical tale of “pig vs. planning commission.” Or could there be?
Tucker’s big adventure begins as most pig stories do: with a piglet. In this case, it was a wee KuneKune male that Brandermill residents Mark and Kim Johnson acquired almost two years ago from a breeder in Amelia. Kim is allergic to dogs, so the couple had launched an extensive search for an alternative pet they could welcome into the home they share with their sons, Joe (now 15) and Grant (now 9). They finally settled on the KuneKune, a popular and friendly domestic breed from New Zealand.
The KuneKune appealed to them, Mark says, because it gets along well with children and other animals. Plus, the breed isn’t inclined to root or roam. Once home, their tiny 5-pound piglet grew quickly on a strict diet of fruits, vegetables and grain. Tucker was housebroken in three days, Mark says. Within 18 months, the pig was fully grown and weighed 160 pounds.
For the Johnsons, Tucker is more than a pet. He is a beloved member of the family. This made it much harder to accept the fact that some people wanted Tucker gone. But it was true. Certain Brandermill residents did not want to share their ZIP code with an extra large, even-toed ungulate.
Those perturbed neighbors took their issue to the Chesterfield County officials, citing that livestock are prohibited from the area. At meetings of the Brandermill Community Association, Tucker opponents shook fists, pointed fingers and uttered the word “pig” as if it left a bad taste in their mouths.
The critics talked about pigs like “gateway animals.” You start with a pig and then what? Elephants, tigers and bears? They laid out nightmare scenarios in which Brandermill transformed into a petting zoo, a wildlife safari park, a place where mad scientists extracted dinosaur DNA from ancient mosquitos … and then what?
OK, so maybe it wasn’t that extreme. But still, it wasn’t pleasant for the Johnsons.
Is Tucker that much of a public menace? Hardly. On any given day, the Johnson family pig acts more like a piece of furniture than a farm animal. He sleeps up to 18 hours a day, lounging on the carpet next to the sofa like a hairy ottoman. He doesn’t smell, hates to get dirty and enjoys lazy time with his pet cat, Beanie.
“He’s an inside pig,” Mark says. “He doesn’t like to be alone. He’d rather hang out with the family.”
Tucker has never wandered loose on the streets, chased a mail carrier or uprooted anyone’s azaleas. He doesn’t bark, howl or growl. He doesn’t pick fights or knock over trashcans. And it’s pretty safe to assume that he’ll never keep the neighbors awake with loud music. So what was the problem?
“It was all about property values,” Mark says. “They say no one will buy a house if there’s a pig living next to them.”
Charlie Davis, President of the Brandermill Community Association, admitted that “change seldom provokes unanimity.” From his position, there were some people who just didn’t like the concept of transforming into a swine-friendly community.
“Tucker supporters think that [accepting pigs] enhances property values because it shows a neighborhood willing to embrace change,” Davis says. “But I’m not enough of an expert on real estate or pigs to know for sure.”
Brandermill is a planned community. Most people who live in planned communities appreciate the structure of the residential rules and regulations. But planned communities are also the kind of places where neighborly disagreements can spark small wars over garden placement, home maintenance, “questionable” paint colors and mailbox styles. Not everything always goes according to plan. And Brandermill most definitely didn’t have a plan for pigs.
Faced with an active opposition that wanted their family pet exiled, the Johnsons had three choices. They could get rid of Tucker, maybe ship him off to a pig sanctuary. They could pack up and move the whole family out of Chesterfield. Or they could stand their ground, dive into the bureaucracy headfirst and fight to change the rules.
“One of the reasons that we didn’t back down was to show our children that if you’re right, you deserve to be heard and go through the process,” Kim says.
Changing the rules meant appealing to the Chesterfield Planning Commission, the Chesterfield Board of Supervisors and the Brandermill Community Association. Throughout the months of meetings, forms, votes, committees and waiting for decisions, the Johnson family and Tucker appeared on local news shows, gave interviews and even gained a national audience after being featured on an episode of ABC’s 20/20.
Social media connected them to the sympathetic masses, and the family received an outpouring of online support. Tucker’s die-hard local fans regularly appeared at public meetings to support their four-legged friend. Still, in October 2014, the Chesterfield Planning Commission denied the Johnsons a conditional-use permit. It was a setback, but the final vote was still up to the county Board of Supervisors. Originally scheduled for last November, the meeting was pushed to January of this year.
The Johnsons and Tucker took full advantage of the extra time to continue their campaign of pig positivity. They teamed with advocacy groups and organizations that helped deliver hundreds of support emails to Chesterfield County. Their message began to take hold.
“I visited the Johnson home before the board acted on the case, and it was clear to me they had a strong bond with Tucker,” says Art Warren, the Clover Hill District supervisor. “I also did not receive many negative comments from neighborhood residents.”
Dale District Supervisor Jim Holland also stopped by to say hello. He says it was clear that Tucker was the family’s pet. “People’s homes are their castles,” Holland says. “Government has no business in people’s homes.”
The Board of Supervisors approved a one-year conditional-use permit in January. It allowed Tucker to stay in the Johnson home, provided they abide by certain stipulations. No more walks down the street. No more trips to Little League games or elementary school visits. Tucker could only go outside in the fenced backyard, on a harness and a leash.
It was a victory, of sorts, but the permit provided the Johnsons only a 365-day reprieve. After that, who knew what would happen? That was part of the reason why, after a lengthy debate, the family decided to leave Chesterfield.
In April, the Johnsons sold their Brandermill home. The family plans to move to Powhatan County — to a community without a homeowners association.
“Life is too short,” Mark says. “I can’t go through this again in a year.”
“We stood our ground,” Kim says. “We just want peace of mind, and for Tucker to do what he wants to do. We want him to be able to walk up and down the street. We just want peace.”
The Johnsons acknowledge that they have become role models of sorts and champions of domestic pet diversity. One veterinarian who retired from the U.S. Department of Agriculture told Mark that Richmond is a “hotbed for pet pigs on the East Coast.” Since the Tucker story broke, Mark has met dozens of pet pig owners who live “in hiding” in the Richmond region. Families in similar situations have reached out from as far away as Texas and Missouri.
“I will still pursue Chesterfield County to change the ordinance and we will still work to help society accept that pigs can be pets,” Mark says. “I don’t want to feel like we’re letting [other pig owners] down. If we’re able to help make that change, it will be worth it.”
The Johnsons are in the process of trademarking “Tucker the Pig” as a charitable service organization. Kim is working on a children's book series about Tucker, and proceeds will go to pediatric health care organizations. KuneKune pigs can live as long as 20 years, so Tucker still has plenty of time to help change people’s porcine prejudice.
So what can we take from Tucker’s tale?
Can pigs and people live together in harmony? Of course. Will neighborhoods embrace more branches of the animal kingdom? Maybe. Will Tucker stand up one day and lead a revolt a la Animal Farm? Probably not.