Pig owner fighting to make “house hogs” legal in Mitchell

Rachela Dirksen was "devastated" to learn that her pig Bruce was not allowed on residential property
Published: Oct. 5, 2022 at 7:41 PM CDT
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MITCHELL, S.D. (Dakota News Now) - It’s really nothing to squeal about.

But an illegal pet pig that appeared to have raised a stink has become the subject of a new ordinance to make house hogs legal in Mitchell.

Rachela Dirksen moved to a house near Lake Mitchell from California three weeks ago with her husband, two kids, three dogs, and her best friend Bruce, a potbelly pig.

Spend just a few minutes with Rachela and Bruce, and it’s pretty clear that these two have the kind of loving relationship a lot of us have with our dogs and cats.

“Everything about Bruce just makes me happy,” Dirksen said. “Looking at him makes me happy. He’s funny. He’s smart. He can be naughty, but he’s worth it.”

She pets him. Lies with him on the floor. Gives him baths. Calls him inside. Coaxes him near her with treats. Rubs his belly. Tucks him into his dog bed every night.

“He’s not my support animal,” Dirksen said. “I am his.”

She always wanted a pig because they’re “adorable” and loves their noses and tails. But she waited until a couple of years ago, until her mature adult years — for her husband to come around to the idea, and for her kids to grow into adolescence — before she bought Bruce from a friend when he was eight months old.

“It’s our normal,” Dirksen said. “When we see Bruce, we’re not like, ‘oh, my gosh, we have this abnormal animal in our house, and we’re crazy. We see Bruce and I just smile.”

And in the Dirksen’s residence in Southern California, Bruce was legal. But it isn’t in Mitchell.

In 2017, an ordinance was brought to the city council to allow potbelly pigs on residential property, but was shot down, mainly because residents who spoke did not want the breeding of pigs in city limits.

Dirksen, of course, was unaware of any of this. She assumed that if Bruce was kosher in California, there would certainly be no law against him living in and around a family house on the countryside outskirts of a small town in South Dakota.

Although, she was a bit nervous about neighbors.

“I think when they think pig, they think dirty,” Dirksen said. “They think pig sty. Maybe a nuisance. Noisy. Aggressive. Things like that. (But) they’re really the complete opposite. At least Bruce is.

“I can’t speak to everybody who is going to own a pig, but I do think that somebody who wants to have a pig or wants to love a pig, they’re going to do the training part. They’re going to do the cuddling, the loving, the caring part. You know, that basically builds a pig into being a loving pet. They are very sensitive and they do care about your feelings and how you feel, and they’re very honest about how they feel.”

Bruce does not chase livestock, go after squirrels or deer or someone else’s dog, Dirksen said. Nor bark at neighbors or dig out from under a fence, as many dogs do.

Soon after moving, Bruce was wandering and “exploring” about neighbors’ yards. A resident called Mitchell Animal Control. Eventually, code enforcement came by to tell Dirksen that pet pigs were not allowed in Mitchell, and that the Dirksens would be fined each day until they got rid of Bruce.

”I was devastated at first,” Dirksen said. “I knew I had made a mistake by not finding out and doing my part on making sure I wasn’t breaking any rules. I obviously don’t want to be the person moving here from California and making waves, and changing rules. I wanted to move here and be quiet. But, you know, it didn’t work out like that.”

But the nightmare Dirksen thought she was about to live never took shape. For one, she learned that neighbors had called authorities about Bruce because they care about his well-being, the same way they would a dog or cat’s. They didn’t want him to get lost or hit by a car.

“My surrounding neighbors, after they found out everything that had happened, they actually came over and comforted me,” Dirksen said. “They said that this is not how they wanted it to be. That they’re very welcoming of Bruce.”

So was the Police Chief Mark Koster and Mayor Bob Everson.

Dirksen called the mayor in a panic, asking him what she could possibly do to avoid the fines and keep Bruce around.

“He calmed me down and said ‘here are the things we have to do to make it the right way,” Dirksen said. “Everyone has been so kind to me, coming in and trying to change the rules and then taking the time to listen to me and hear about Bruce instead of just washing their hands of me. I really do appreciate that.”

Dirksen and city councilors decided to wave the fines, essentially giving Bruce a “protection order.” All the family had to do was follow the same owners all dog owners do.

”If you have a pet pig that comes inside and outside and is potty-trained to go outside, plays well with other pets, well-oriented toward being around people, I don’t see where that should be an issue,” Dirksen told Dakota News Now.

On Monday, the mayor and councilors presented a new ordinance would make house hogs legal, with Dirksen stepping up and making her case.

“He’s everything to me, and the community has really come together for me and Bruce and let me know that it’s OK to try and make things right,” Dirksen said. “And I want to teach my kids that: If something is the way you don’t like, prove your point. I was asked to prove my point, and I want to prove it in a positive way. I want people to see how kind Bruce is, and how much we love and care for him.”

The new ordinance would also keep the breeding of pigs outlawed.

At first, the potbelly pigs could only be up to 150 lb., but Dirksen told Everson that Bruce was already “too chubby” at 155.

We’re not going to weigh the things,” Dirksen said, so officials agreed to change the weight limit to 200 lb.

“Ultimately, we’re not trying to prohibit these things in the city of Mitchell,” Dirksen said. “We’re just trying to be common sensical about it.”

The next chapter in Rachela’s Web will be Monday, October 17th, at the next city council meeting. That’s when anyone in the public can have their say about if Mitchell can become the next “hog heaven.”

Everson expects the ordinance to pass. But if it fails?

“The thought of that is terrifying for me,” Dirksen said. “I don’t even want to think that way. I’m just praying that the community comes together and sees that we should make the change.”