Florence Gruber lounges with some of the approximately 30 to 40 pigs living with her and her partner in their Essex, Vt., home on Friday, December 28, 2012. Bambi (left) gave birth to eight piglets on Christmas eve.
(Photo: Glenn Russell, The Burlington (Vt.) Free Press)
ESSEX, Vt. -- More than three dozen pigs living in an Essex home will have to find a new sty.
The town's Zoning Administration Board upheld its order that Florence Gruber remove all of the 30 to 40 mini-pigs, which live indoors, by Jan. 22.
It was the second time in less than a year that Gruber has been forced to remove the pet pigs she breeds from a residential neighborhood. She was ordered to remove them from a home in Paulsboro, N.J., last spring.
Before Thursday night's meeting, Gruber made her case for keeping at least some of the animals as pets.
Standing between the TV and the feeding trough at the home she shares with Alan Tsefrekas, Gruber pointed around the living room at her pigs, some lounging on blankets against the bare, white walls, others scuttling across the floor, hooves sliding on wood.
"This is Nadia; that's Olive," she said. "That's Moe; that's Larry. I don't know where Shemp is. He's around here somewhere. That's Snow White Sleepy Girl, because she yawns all the time."
Bambi lies beneath a heating lamp in the kitchen, nursing the litter of eight piglets she birthed on Christmas Eve. The house smells of bleach. There are more pigs in the next room. And more upstairs.
Gruber said she has lost count. At least 30. Maybe 40. But people have started coming by to take them off her hands. Which is good, because the town wants them out, and Gruber said sharing a house with so many pigs has taken a toll on her respiratory system and consumed her life.
"We don't have time to eat," Gruber said. "Last night we had dinner at three o'clock and then went to bed, and that's the way it goes."
An adult mini-pig typically weighs 50 to 100 pounds. Gruber said the pigs are litter-box-trained, but accidents can happen if the animals are disturbed. After mopping up the puddle that a startled Nadia left beside a Burlington Free Press photographer, Tsefrekas gave a tour of the upstairs to some visitors. Jason Seidl and his two kids drove up from Leominster, Mass., after reading an online ad stating that Gruber and Tsefrekas were giving away pet pigs.
Seidl's 9-year-old son, Jacob, came downstairs with a favorite picked out.
"There's one upstairs with, like, a gray bottom," he said. "It's really cute."
That was the state of the Gruber/Tsefrekas house late last month in Essex, a week before the couple drove to the town offices to appeal an order by Essex's zoning administrator that the pigs must go.
The town defines pigs as livestock, and forbids them from living in the neighborhood. Gruber said she objects to the mini-pigs' being defined as livestock and not as pets, but she said she recognizes that she cannot live with so many pigs. She needs additional time to offload the animals. Maybe a month.
"We want to get rid of all of them except two or three," she said. "We never intended to keep this many in a situation like this. It was just an emergency to save their lives."
At Thursday's meeting, Gruber introduced herself using the name Florence Gruber, and town officials referred to her that way. She previously had introduced herself to the Free Press as Cheryl Gruber, then later said her name was Cheryl Tsefrekas. In written materials she gave the Free Press, she identified herself as Cheryl Tsefrekas. After the meeting Thursday, Gruber said that Cheryl was a nickname that family members called her. She also said that she used Alan Tsefrekas' last name in her dealings with the town. The couple is not married.
More than 30 people, many of them Tsefrekas' neighbors, packed into the Essex conference room for the Zoning Board meeting.
Zoning Administrator Sharon Kelley said Tsefrekas violated the town's regulations by keeping pigs on his 1.27 acre lot, located within a residential area. Kelley said Tsefrekas' ex-wife reported the pigs to the town and said she saw Tsefrekas dumping animal waste in a ravine behind the house.
A town official who visited the house in November counted 47 pigs, Kelley said.
The Vermont Department of Agriculture defines pigs, even miniature potbellied pigs, as agricultural animals, which have no place in a residential area, Kelley said.
Brian Marcotte, vice president of the Pinewood Manor homeowners association, where Tsefrekas lives, and several of Tsefrekas' neighbors complained about the pigs and the condition of the property.
"It's not a debate about if pigs are good for so and so," Marcotte said. "It's irrelevant. No pigs in Pinewood."
"You have neighbors; that's the issue," resident Marie Sadler said. "It's about consideration for people in the neighborhood."
Pam Alexander, an animal control officer from Huntington, said she and many other people and organizations were working with Gruber to relocate the pigs, and she asked the audience for patience.
"They recognize it's gotten out of hand," Alexander said. "The animals are being worked with. Many rescue organizations are involved. No one is looking away."
Kelley said she has heard from an organization involved that all of the pigs can be removed by Monday.
Gruber reiterated at the meeting that she and Tsefrekas want to keep two or three pigs.
The journey that brought the pigs to Essex began in the spring when a New Jersey court ordered Gruber, who had been breeding pigs for more than two years, to find new homes for the roughly 30 pigs in her house.
"I wanted to breed something that was small, but I didn't want anything that made noise, like yappy little dogs," Gruber said. "And pigs are quiet, and they're peaceful, and they're affectionate."
Gruber said she and the pigs traveled to a rural swath of New York in the summer with the intent of settling down. But workers accidentally destroyed a heated shelter for the pigs and felled trees on some of the fencing, she said. Then Hurricane Sandy rolled in, forcing her to scramble to house the animals in makeshift structures. Then the spring-fed water system dried up.
"And then the coyotes came," she said. "We lost a litter of eight. So then I ended up having to sleep outside with a gun to protect them."
When, according to Gruber, a neighbor shot an arrow through Angel the mini-pig's shoulder, Tsefrekas invited Gruber to live with him. They packed the pigs into an RV and headed toward Essex - almost crashing en route when the brakes went out, she said.
Gruber and Tsefrekas said they mistakenly believed pigs were permitted to live with them in Essex.
In the week before Christmas, having been ordered by the town to find new homes for the pigs, Gruber and Tsefrekas contacted the Humane Society of Chittenden County.
"The owner of the pigs reached out for some help," humane investigator JoAnn Nichols said. "Our position here at the shelter is, we do not work with livestock, so we don't take them in."
Instead, the organization reached out to its contacts, including Green Mountain Animal Defenders, to help in trying to relocate the animals.
"As far as conditions of the pigs, the pigs appear clean," Nichols said. "There was no probable cause to seize the animals."
Gruber said Thursday that she would comply with the board's ruling.
Matt Ryan, The (Burlington, Vt.) Free Press