Thursday, March 12, 2009

Pinky Lee Pig: right thing in the wrong place now in a better place

When visitors to my petting zoo look at our Vietnamese pot-bellied pigs, normally they ask one of three questions. The first question: "Is it true that pigs are intelligent?"

This query merits a humorous response, so I either say, "Of course! That's why pigs are the animal women compare us men to the most." Or "You bet they're intelligent! Wilbur over there is running for Congress. He promises if elected not to spend the taxpayer's money on pork."

The second question is how long they live. I respond that with proper care they can make it into their late teens, and that the one belonging to George Clooney actually lived to be nineteen. Coincidentally, nineteen is also the number of people who saw his film Confessions of a Dangerous Mind.

The third question is something I don't feel comfortable joking about. "Is it true that they make good pets?" comes the hopeful inquiry.

And I respond seriously that no, they do not make good pets, and the craze for Vietnamese pot-bellied pigs was a sad fad indeed. So many people purchased these swine and came to regret their decision that some thoughtful, concerned people have set up pig rescue sanctuaries so that there are homes for unwanted pets that the owners want to discard.

Then I think of the famous instance of someone who wanted to keep a pig, and apparently was competent in her swine husbandry, but she suffered the wrath of her neighbors. And me being me, I ponder the ironic connection this has to constitutional law.

The situation I'm describing took place in upscale Lake Forest, Illinois, where Estelle Walgreen, ex-wife of the heir to the drugstore fortune, battled her neighbors over her unusual pets. Well today I see that Pinky Lee, one of Mrs. Walgreen's three swine, died at the ripe old age of sixteen. She'd have made it to nineteen like Clooney's pig, but living in Illinois instead of Hollywood she didn't have the advantage of a tofu diet or an exercise guru.

The article I've linked touches briefly on the dispute between Walgreen and other property owners in the vicinity. When the controversy was first raging, my mother sent me every clipping she found in the Chicago Tribune reporting on these Lake Forest swine. Meaning no disrespect to the Tribune reporters, neither the linked article--nor, by my recollection, any of the earlier pieces sent to me by Mom, although I've lost them since--mentioned the little constitutional law irony I want to note here.

In 1926, the United State Supreme Court decided the landmark case of Euclid v. Ambler (272 U.S. 365). The high court ruled six to three that it was acceptable for communities to have zoning ordinances. Lots of cities and towns already had zoning in place by 1926, so if the court had gone the other way, it would have made a huge difference in how America grew in the twentieth century. Anybody interested in this is well-advised to read The Zoning of America: Euclid v. Ambler by Michael Allan Wolf (2008). It's a title in the University Press of Kansas series "Landmark Law Cases and American Society." (I have several volumes in this fine series; they're directed towards an interested popular audience rather than lawyers, so you don't need to be a Harvard Law Review contributor to get something out of them.)

Well in the course of his opinion for the court, Justice George Sutherland had cause to define, where property rights are concerned, what exactly is a nuisance. And here he goes:

"A nuisance may be merely a right thing in the wrong place, like a pig in the parlor instead of the barnyard." (Euclid at 388).

I'd love to know, frankly, if the attorneys representing the "let's keep Lake Forest pig-free" neighbors thought to put that citation in their briefs. Whether they did or didn't, I just think it's a riot that in THE case on zoning in America, the Justice tossed out a hypothetical nuisance that was exactly the circumstance of a well-publicized controversy in a ritzy Chicago suburb seventy years later. (Okay not quite exactly--the pigs were in Walgreen's garage instead of her parlor, but it's pretty damn close.)

So godspeed, Pinky Lee Pig, and if you're in pig heaven, I hope you get to eat all the goat feces you want. My pigs at the petting zoo really enjoy doing that. Gee, I'll never understand why the Old Testament says swine are unclean animals...

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