Gregory Brown was a few hours into his shift at a golf course in southwest Atlanta, less than five miles from downtown, when something unusual puttered down the road, just outside the chain-link fence: a 150-pound, black-and-white pot-bellied pig. “We have deer and possums and even raccoons,” says the greenskeeper. “Never pigs.” Not here, anyway.
It wasn’t difficult to coax her inside the gate and away from passing cars, he says. “Everywhere I went, the pig was behind me. I was in a cart, and she was following me around.” At one point, players paused to take in the sight of a pig on the fairway near hole three, where she wandered a bit before settling in for a nap. (“They were thrilled to see her.”) In truth, the pig wasn’t a total stranger: Brown had seen her hanging out in the yard of a house about a mile up the road. He asked a friend to drive there, and soon enough, the pig’s owner showed up to retrieve her. Brown watched as the pig immediately went to him, “growling and all—happy to see him.” The owner wrapped her in a tight bear hug, heaved her off the ground, carried her over to the backseat of a white Camry, “and they all went on their way,” Brown says. “The pig turned around and started looking out the window like a dog.”
Brown knew the escaped pig—so do a lot of other people in the neighborhood. There are nearly two dozen Facebook and Nextdoor posts about her jailbreaks, dating back to 2019: “Anyone lose their bacon?” someone asked. “IT has a NAME,” another neighbor answered. “Her name is SUNSHINE.”
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Three years ago, Thomas P. bought Sunshine for $50 from some guy at a Gwinnett County gas station whom he’d met by searching on Craigslist for “potbellied pigs.” (Thomas P., who is 29 years old, asked that his full name not be used because his neighbors are already sort of pissed off at him.) Unlike people who think they’re buying a “micro” or “teacup” pig that will stay small—which, for the record, isn’t a thing—Thomas knew what he was getting into. He had a pig as a child and wanted his young daughter to share that experience, though he ended up the primary caretaker. (They didn’t hit it off, “so now I have a pig.”)
Thomas says owning a pig is kinda sorta like owning a dog: Sunshine is housetrained and, when she was younger (and much smaller), she’d sit on the couch and watch television with him. She likes attention and flops over when he rubs her belly. And she’s funny. He says she’ll get excited to see people and then act like she doesn’t want them to pet her, which sounds more like a cat to me, but fine.
Pigs are at least as smart as dogs and may have more complex cognitive abilities than human three-year-olds. “She’ll work really hard on trying to figure things out, like how to get food or how to get out of cages,” Thomas says. “How to disappear in the blink of an eye.” She might not look like it, but “she can haul ass.”
Sunshine’s wanderlust hit about a year after Thomas brought her home to their blue gabled cottage—which sits on a gently sloping, notably unfenced, .3-acre lot—and she hasn’t shown an inclination to slow down. She’s become, if not a folk hero of her intown neighborhood, then at least a staple of its social-media pages. In one Nextdoor post, she’s making her way toward the dollar store—“She’s even using the crosswalk!”
“I would die for Sunshine,” someone from the neighborhood Facebook group wrote.
“Sunshine stay out here in these streets . . . As a new neighbor, maybe she can show me around and we can walk the block together.”
Someone posted a photo of Sunshine grazing near a sidewalk and asked, “Does this pig belong to anyone?” To which someone replied: “In a way, this pig belongs to everyone.”
And it wouldn’t be social media without some shade:
“He/She mess around and stroll down my street, it’s going to be BACON for everybody.”
“Sunshine need a cell phone. A day planner. A babysitter. A gate that work . . . When she gets home this time, I think you two need to have a serious talk about your relationship.”
“Is Sunshine out again? Got me singing ‘Don’t save her, she don’t wanna be saved.’”
“She a runner. She a track star.”
“Ain’t no Sunshine when she’s gone.”
Other neighbors are less amused: “Call animal control on that guy. He’s putting the lives of drivers, pedestrians, and that piggy on the line . . . The city isn’t the same as a pasture.”
“It seems light on the surface,” says PETA spokesperson Kristin Rickman. “But sometimes, things that seem cute or funny on the surface are really a lot more involved than you would think.” Rickman rattled off a list of possible scenarios: She could eat or drink something that could hurt or even kill her. She could be attacked by stray dogs or become a victim of cruelty. She could cause a car accident or be struck herself.
“Neighbors may say she enjoys it and they enjoy her,” Rickman says. “Our toddlers may want to play in the street, but that doesn’t mean we let them.”
The first time Sunshine got picked up, it was for loitering outside a nearby school. (Thomas says she likes kids because they’re generous with their snacks.) Someone from the Atlanta public school system made the call, and Animal Services rushed to the scene to find their suspect at the bank across the street, lying in some pine straw. They loaded her up in the back of a county truck and drove her to the holding facility on Marietta Boulevard. Thomas located her, eventually, by calling Animal Services, and he bailed her out that same day. She wouldn’t be as lucky the next time.
Several months later, Sunshine broke bad again. Thomas searched her haunts: the bushes by the house, the woods next door, Mollie’s yard with the acorns four doors down. Sometimes, she walks down the street to taunt another neighborhood pig, Buckwheat, her mortal enemy (and more of a homebody). No luck. Thomas posted another BOLO to the Facebook page, where people were again threatening to call animal control. Only, this time, someone did, and she was picked up before he could find her. Sunshine’s arresting officer informed Thomas that he wouldn’t regain custody of her until he appeared in court to answer to his “Livestock at Large” citation on a date yet to be determined because of the pandemic.
“So, just ignore that the entire neighborhood is in love with the damn pig,” a neighbor wrote. “You go call animal control on an animal that won’t even approach you. Good job, Karen/Chad. And yes, I’d say it to your face whoever you are, so let me know when and where.”
Someone offered to sign a petition for Sunshine’s immediate release. Someone else suggested calling the Georgia Justice Project, a nonprofit organization that helps individuals navigate the criminal-justice system.
Meanwhile, Thomas, uncertain if he’d be allowed to visit Sunshine, says he snapped: Is she freaked out? Are they feeding her the right food? What if they keep her for more than a year? “Is she even going to remember me?”
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Fulton County Animal Services is run by LifeLine Animal Project, a no-kill shelter that takes in 30 to 40 animals daily, including—in addition to the usual suspects—stray goats, horses, domestic ducks, and, once, a tarantula. But the Marietta Boulevard facility was created in 1978 to house dogs, and just 80 dogs at that. (When I visited recently, around 200 animals were housed there.) When weighing whether to impound, LifeLine staff consider animal well-being, public safety, and the shelter’s finite space. Their goal is to keep people with their pets, “which includes pigs in this situation,” says Lara Hudson, director of Fulton County Animal Services.
Sunshine’s case was a no-brainer: It was better to release the pig than to spend on her the limited time and resources the organization may need for, say, a dangerous dog that almost killed a toddler, which they had a few weeks ago. The bottom line, according to Hudson, is this: “We don’t want your pig. You do want your pig. But we have a job to do, and we’re required to enforce Fulton County ordinances, which state that you cannot let your pig run loose. How can we work together to make this happy for everyone?”
Thomas says he needed to prove that Sunshine lived indoors, so he sent LifeLine photos of Sunshine lying on the sofa and another of her rooting around in a hall closet, buried in some towels. Then, after a long two days at the shelter, they sent her home.
“I was just wondering if they got the pig back?” someone asked on the neighborhood page. (“I was just wondering why they keep losing it,” someone answered.) Thomas posted an update—“Sunshine bonded out . . . If anyone has any spare lumber lying around, please message me”—and set about building an outdoor pen, complete with a small mud pit and plastic kiddie pool, where, as of press time, she’s lived five months without major incident. He still lets Sunshine roam while he’s gardening in the backyard or sitting on the front porch. “But not unsupervised,” he adds. “She’s slick as hell.”
This article appears in our August 2021 issue.