Boy With Austim Devastated After City Bans Pet Pig

Family says pet pig Loopey has done wonders for capabilities of autistic son.

September 10, 2009, 11:53 AM

Sept. 10, 2009— -- Loopey might be an unorthodox best friend, but she's a good one.

She was sweet and playful and didn't seem to notice her buddy's quirks like others did.

Now, more than a year after Loopey -- a black pet pot-bellied pig -- made fast friends with 8-year-old Anthony Pia, the autistic boy's parents are battling their city's ban on hogs.

It's been three months since Lisa Pia and Bobby Tibbetts, fearing fines from the city, removed Loopey the pig from their Fayetteville, N.C., home and took him back to the ranch where they got her.

While they plead with city leaders to allow Loopey to come home, Anthony, Tibbetts said, continues to regress into the troubling behaviors the 80-pound pig helped ameliorate.

Before they brought Loopey home, Anthony had trouble with head and hand shaking, bed-wetting, sleeping and interacting with other people. His connection to Loopey, Tibbetts said, was immediate.

"He stopped wetting the bed," he said. "He came home every day and talked to her because she wouldn't say anything [bad.]"

Devastated by the loss of his friend, Anthony isn't calmed by daily visits to the ranch 35 miles away.

"Right now, he has this mentality that everybody in the world is out to get him," Tibbetts said, adding that he found the second-grader screaming in his room one night "asking Jesus to take him."

Fayetteville Councilman Keith Bates, one of Anthony's supporters, said those in favor of letting the boy keep Loopey never wanted to change the ordinance, but instead give the city manager the opportunity to rule on these situations on a case-by-case basis.

A Council motion to do just that, he said, ended in a 5-5 tie vote and was thrown out due to lack of majority.

"This wouldn't have hurt the city one bit," Bates told "It's a shame when we had the opportunity ... to help the child, especially a disabled child and we didn't do this."

Bates said the other five who voted against the motion "are worried that if we allow one prohibited animal breed into the city limits then anyone can bring one in."

It was a sentiment echoed by Councilman Robert Massey, who voted against the motion.

"We need to be very careful before we decide we are going to change the ordinance for the whole city of Fayetteville," he said, as reported by ABC's Fayetteville affiliate, WTVD.

Helping Anthony Find His Comfort Zone

Tibbetts said that his wife suspected her son might be autistic when he was still an infant. But after the formal diagnosis, the two began researching the growing trend of using animals to help children with autism.

The couple already had a cat which Anthony found boring and a small dog whose movements sometimes scared him. So they drove him to a ranch to visit a variety of animals and the little boy took an immediate liking to the pigs.

In June of 2008 they brought Loopey home, then just a month and a half old. She was quickly housetrained and the family was diligent about bathing the pig.

At night she slept either in the living room or in Anthony's room, Tibbetts said, and the two bonded over a shared dislike of thunderstorms. They considered Loopey their son's medicine.

"When you find something that helps them you roll with it," he said of children with autism. "That's what we did."

And Tibbetts said they thought they had done their homework. In addition to researching how to properly raise a domestic pig, they checked with the city's animal control officer.

"They said as long as it's not a disturbance," he said. "We didn't know anything about an ordinance."

Tibbetts said it's not clear how officials found out about Loopey. He was told that a complaint was filed and while he has his suspicions, he's not exactly sure who it was.

Acting on the advice of a council member who lived nearby, Tibbets petitioned the city council to amend the ordinance to allow Loopey to remain at home.

"We thought that once they knew why we had her ... we didn't think it would be a big deal," he said.

But while the council agreed initially to consider the idea, there was not enough support. Tibbetts said he was told to wait until after the fall elections and hope there would be enough turnover that the new council would think differently.

Tibbetts said he and his wife, a day care administrator, would like to move out of Fayetteville, but have not yet found other housing that is both affordable and can accommodate their four children and, of course, Loopey.

"If I had the money, believe me, we'd already be out of this town," he said.

Animals and Their Efffect on Children With Autism

Dr. Lori Warner, director of the HOPE Center for Autism at Beaumont Hospital in Michigan, told that while there is no scientific evidence that animals provide medical benefit for autistic children, there are enough anecdotal tales, including some from her own patients' parents, to take the trend seriously.

Losing a close friend -- human or animal -- can be traumatic for any child, but "especially a child who has social difficulties."

For a child such as Anthony, who Warner has not treated, that loss and the disruption of routine, something else precious to people with autism, could be difficult for him to process.

The animal, she said, can provide companionship for Anthony, but helping him learn how to exist in the real world.

"He could use this relationship with Loopey to reach out to other people," she said.

For now, Tibbetts, a warehouse manager out on disability, helps Anthony keep his bond going with trips to see Loopey, who he said, is happy to see her boy.

"As soon as she hears her name, she is wagging her tail and grunting," he said.

And he got a surprise call from a local fair owner who heard about Anthony's plight and offered the family of six a free night at the fair, an opportunity Tibbetts and Pia used to show Anthony that there are people out there who care about him.

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