Justine Needham of Layton found herself the owner of a Vietnamese pot-bellied pig named Bebop who—surprising to even her—worked his way into her heart and checked all the pet boxes, even more than any of her previous dogs had. But despite Bebop’s striking similarities to a dog, the Layton City Council told her she couldn’t keep him.
In a unanimous vote last week, they denied her right to own the animal.
The Council failed to uphold Justine’s property rights, and instead made a decision based off an ordinance that classifies all pigs as livestock—which are banned from most homes. They expressed concerns that other residents may also want to own livestock within city limits if Bebop were allowed to stay.
Although Bebop didn’t cause any problems for neighbors, and provides emotional support for Justine’s depression and anxiety, in the Council’s view, he’s just not the right type of animal. Similarly, as shown in this video, pygmy goats and other animals deemed livestock have been denied to individuals in other municipalities across the state.
The crux of the councilmembers’ arguments for denying Justine her freedom revolved around misguided arguments like whether or not they considered her pet to be food, or that her pet preferences might be contagious. The Layton City Council is completely missing the mark, but they are not alone; other local governments in Utah have struggled to understand their role in regards to individual property generally, and pet ownership more narrowly.
Denying pet owners their right to ownership should have nothing to do with whether or not an animal is classified as livestock—especially since livestock classifications are arbitrary, non-scientific and culturally based. In China, dogs are occasionally eaten and there is even a dog meat-eating festival; in India, cows roam freely because they are considered sacred; and in France, horses are eaten as a rare delicacy. Livestock is any animal regarded as an asset.
The Council’s decision shouldn’t have anything to do with whether or not copycats will arise. If everyone in the neighborhood decided that pot-bellied pigs made the best pets, and those pigs were harmless and accepted by the community, the government has no place making them criminals for owning pigs. Preferences and trends are constantly changing and it would be a terrible form of government that only protected your rights if the majority consented to or shared your preferences.
As erroneous as both reasons that the council gave for denial are, there are similarities across the state for these types of violations into individual’s property rights. To help local government wade through the the animal ownership debate, one factor must be considered: is the animal a nuisance? (You’ll note that the question was not phrased, does the animal have the potential to become a nuisance?) Have neighbors complained of unwanted smells wafting over the fence into their yard? Have neighbors reported annoying sounds that haven’t stopped and robbed them of their peace or has their property been damaged because of the animal?
If the answers are no to these questions, then you don’t have a nuisance and the individual’s property rights surpass other concerns. These are the only questions that are applicable to determine whether or not a nuisance exists. The mere existence of an animal is not a nuisance. A nuisance exists when actual inconvenience is created. Infringement on others requires that their senses or property are violated—and only then is it proper for the government to restrain someone’s activity on their own property.
As explained in our policy paper, every citizen should have the right to pursue happiness and control their own property. If Justine found a corner of happiness with her pig and no nuisance exists, why should local government’s power supersede her right to ownership? Whether it be a pot-bellied pig, pygmy goat, cat, dog, or ferret, property rights should override local government’s desire to control.