Her pig love is big love

He slurps. He snores. He wags. He sighs. He squeals. And she loves him.

Published June 2, 2007

ODESSA -- Jackie Ciliberto dumps the fruit cocktail into a bowl and sets it on a mat in front of the pig. This is a treat, something the pig doesn't often get. He's excited.

"Listen. Can you hear him?" Ciliberto says, delighted. She's in the kitchen of her 803-square-foot, 1950s, lakefront bungalow in Odessa, which she shares with her longtime boyfriend, Richard Register, their two bulldogs, one miniature pinscher and one pig. Their two cats live outside. The dogs and the pig sleep indoors, occasionally on the bed. That, also, is a treat. But on rainy days, Ciliberto loves to snuggle with all of them, drifting off to the sounds of their lumbered snoring. It's comforting, she says.

"Can you hear him slurping?" she says about the 30-pound, black and white pig. Ciliberto grins. This is what happens when you have a pig in the family. They're just so amusing.

"It's so funny," she says, laughing. "Listen!"

Indeed, Hamilton the Potbellied Pig is going to town on the fruit cocktail, snuffling and slurping, like he's sucking up the syrup with a straw. He finishes and looks up, his piggy nose all slick with juice. His tail wags fast and he makes low, grinding noises, which sound like when a dog chews on a rubber toy. He does that when he's happy. Hamilton has a language all his own -- one Ciliberto can understand -- which tells when he's pleased, sleepy, wanting to cuddle or anxious. When he feels bad, after he's done something naughty, his shoulders sag, his head is down and he exhales a big long, mournful "oooohhhhh."

The only time he squeals -- the true, ear-piercing shriek city folk expect from a pig -- is when he's frightened. But that doesn't happen often. This pig is living a good, good life.

It all started a year ago, when Ciliberto was at a pet store buying dog and cat food. She saw a book on potbellied pigs and flipped through it. She was fascinated by what she learned -- that pigs are highly intelligent some say the fourth most intelligent animal on the planet and can be trained, much like dogs. She bought the book and began seriously considering getting a pig, which most people thought was odd (if not crazy.) Her boyfriend was okay with it. Ciliberto hoped her dogs would be, too.

She went back to the store and, as fate would have it, they had a litter of five-day-old piglets. Ciliberto picked a little, active guy with a black spot on his butt and brought him home.

Hamilton was not a happy camper for quite awhile. He was a newborn and did what newborn creatures do. He screamed. A lot. He needed to be fed every hour -- day and night. He didn't like the bottle, so Ciliberto had to feed him a warm milk formula through a syringe.

This went on for months. Eventually, Hamilton was weaned to thicker milk, then an oatmeal mush and then to big pig food -- dry pellets, which he didn't take to right away. He never liked the litter box, so Ciliberto trained him like a puppy; to go to the door when he needed to do his business.

Her dogs -- both big, bruiser, slobbery, knucklehead bulldogs -- mothered Hamilton. Winston, her 85-pound Victorian bulldog, curled around the piglet, who snoozed on the dog's belly.

Now Hamilton is just a little over a year old. He weighs 30 pounds and Ciliberto says he'll stay that small -- but many potbellied pig guides say they can keep growing until they're four. The average weight is 90 to 120 pounds.

Hamilton is a character, in a low-key way. Dogs are in your face, demanding attention. Hamilton is always on the sidelines, watching, a look in his eyes like he's in deep thought. Then, when he sees an opportunity, he'll toddle over and politely crawl into your lap and bury his face in your arm. If you rub him on just the right spot on his side, he falls over, wanting a full-on belly rub.

He likes raisins, fruit cups, Doritos, Captain Crunch cereal -- pretty much anything. He likes to swim. Loves to forage. When he wants alone time, he goes into his crate (his "den") and buries himself in his down-feather blankets. When there is too much excitement around him, he throws up. He likes to listen to jazz and soundscapes (waterfalls, nature sounds, stuff like that.)

He loves being swaddled in blankets, like a baby. He gets bathed in the shower, towel dried and spritzed with baby oil. He bum-rushes the dogs outside when he is feeling frisky and wants to be chased.

Hamilton rides in Ciliberto's truck with her. He goes on walks, wearing a harness and lead that says "Bad to the Bone." He causes a sensation. Ciliberto feels like a celebrity. She is the president of the heating and cooling business she and her boyfriend own, Armor Air Inc. Hamilton is an unofficial mascot of sorts. Much of Ciliberto's job is to be out schmoozing -- networking, meetin' and greetin'. Hamilton is great at parties (if he doesn't vomit.) Ciliberto also uses her jaunts with Hamilton to increase awareness about potbellied pigs.

So many people get them without doing enough research, only to find that a pig in the house isn't really what they wanted after all. Then the pig is dumped off at a shelter or in the woods. There are many potbellied pig rescues, such as Noah's Ark in New Port Richey.

Ciliberto is 35. Her boyfriend is 37. They've been together for 12 years. People keep telling Ciliberto that she should have children -- which annoys her. She's never wanted kids. She doesn't know why, but she's never felt all gooey when she sees children -- not like she does with animals. Her pets are her children. And there's nothing better than, on a Friday night after a long work week, than to cuddle on the couch, Ciliberto and her boyfriend in their jammies, drinking a nice cup of coffee, working on a crossword puzzle, with their animals stretched out on their laps and at their feet. She never thought that growing up would feel so good.

Erin Sullivan can be reached at esullivan@sptimes.com or (813) 909-4609.

Fast Facts: Pig year people
2007 is the Chinese Year of the Pig. People born in this year are, allegedly, chivalrous and gallant. They have few friends - but those they do have are dear and cherished. Pig people are honest, loyal and kind. They can have quick tempers, but hate quarrelling.
Source: Chinese Culture Center

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