A Happy Grandmother, a Poisoned Pig and What Weird Times Are These

Berenice Deane comforts a recovering Wilbur the Pig.
Berenice Deane comforts a recovering Wilbur the Pig. Mariana Greene
These are such strange times. They should be awful, and they are. We know it hasn’t hit yet, not the way it will. I don’t know about you, but I feel fear. But then I also feel something else — an inkling, but I’m not at all sure inkling of what.

Yesterday out walking my dogs I had a brief chat with a grandmother on a tricycle — one of those big ones with a shopping basket on the handlebars. She’s a bit of a fixture in the ’hood.

I don’t want to put words in her mouth, but I had the distinct impression there may be something about all this that she almost likes. Several references were made to family togetherness and a rare opportunity for children to spend quality time with their elders, as if maybe that’s something everybody would have been doing all along if they had more sense.

I have spoken to her over the years, really just hello-how-are-you. But, you know, you get an impression. And I do know the family a little bit.

I have a feeling this is the kind of grandmother who might be sort of a household hero under the right circumstances, not merely as a cookie-baker but also as a kind of ad litem advocate and protector for the little ones if their parents get crabby and nervous. She just had a certain smile, like this might be a shining hour.

The great hue and cry on the street this week has not been the virus or New York or respirators but the alleged deliberate poisoning of Wilbur.

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And then again I could be imagining it. I wonder. This is a great slowing down of the world. The world can’t help looking different at slower speeds, good, bad or ugly.

Speaking of ugly, the great hue and cry on the street this week has not been the virus or New York or respirators but the alleged deliberate poisoning of Wilbur, who has become our most popular neighbor. Unthinkable, and yet something about it felt like an omen.

Wilbur is a 1-year-old, pink, white and gray pig, a fat little porker at 70 pounds who limps because he was born with one leg shorter than the rest. He appeared in the fenced backyard of a house half a block from me a few weeks ago, before coronavirus was real to us.

At first there was some confusion and trepidation. People wondered if it was legal to keep a pig in the city. The answer is yes, as long as the animal is treated humanely and not a threat to people or other pets.

I looked it up. The only animals specifically prohibited in the city code are margays (a species of wild cat), badgers, wolves, dingoes, elephants, hippopotamuses, rhinoceroses and non-human primates other than spider monkeys, capuchins or Stephen Miller.

Mothers had been bringing their small children to visit Wilbur. Fancy cars stopped, and people clambered out holding bouquets of greens for him, some of which looked like Whole Foods arugula. (I know.)

Something about him, this wonderfully cute little unfamiliar animal, made him the overnight star of the neighborhood, especially after COVID-19 hit and people were cooped up and scared. I don’t know why. But I could feel it, watching from across the street with my two dogs while parents with kids, couples and individuals lined up at the proper social distances waiting for their turns to go converse with Wilbur.

And Wilbur himself, oh man, he was in … gosh, I stopped myself just now from making a very offensive remark … he was in some kind of heaven. He was always very gregarious, even when he was fast asleep on his mattress. Whenever a visitor came to the wire fence, he perked up, hoisted himself heavily and hobbled across the yard on his irregular legs to say hello, to be petted and given greens and carrots.

The word had gone 'round that those were the only treats allowed by his keeper, Berenice Deane, a great lover of animals. My wife and I talked to her and got to know her a little after the poisoning. She works in a mortuary. She has a very rickety, tiny little dog with a gray muzzle whose head is misshapen from an injury and operation for which she says she paid $7,000. That tells you something.

Her brother, a farmer, gave her Wilbur. All of Wilbur’s siblings had been killed by dogs. “That was why I named him Wilbur,” she told us, “from Charlotte’s Web, because he was the only one that lived.”
click to enlarge Wilbur's owner called a special veterinary ambulance to take him to the emergency vet when he was unsteady on his legs and vomiting. (He's not a pot-bellied pig, just a pig.) - JIM SCHUTZE
Wilbur's owner called a special veterinary ambulance to take him to the emergency vet when he was unsteady on his legs and vomiting. (He's not a pot-bellied pig, just a pig.)
Jim Schutze
In E.B. White’s 1952 children’s novel, Wilbur the Pig is spared from slaughter, but his friend and protector, a barn spider named Charlotte, dies. Actually Wilbur is not alone after that, but lives out the rest of his years with annual litters of Charlotte’s descendants. I hated that book when I was a child and plugged my ears whenever adults tried to read it to us, because my middle name is Wilbur. Kids called me Wilbur the Pig. But I am going to get it now on Kindle and give it a try.

She told us that a couple of neighbors had made it plain they didn’t like Wilbur. She showed us, acting it out, how one of them, a man, always pinched his nose and walked by haughtily when passing along the fence, even though the pig is odorless, as far as we can tell.

She found Wilbur unresponsive on his mattress. When she got him to his feet, he began vomiting. Putting an unresponsive 70-pound sick pig into a car is harder than you might think. Well, you never thought about it. But when you do think about it, you can imagine. To get Wilbur to the emergency vet, she had to call a special animal ambulance.

She showed us the printout from the vet. She also showed us another document she said she had obtained showing that Wilbur’s limp was the product of a birth defect, not injury or neglect. She said that, prior to the poisoning, someone had called the city to complain. She showed the document about the birth defect to city code inspectors who came to check on Wilbur’s welfare. She says they decided he was OK.

The emergency vet told her, she says, that Wilbur had ingested poison associated with the greens he had been eating. Word of the poisoning flew around the neighborhood on Next Door, Facebook and the dog-walking grapevine. A procession of people came to check on him where he lay by the fence, not eating and still very weakened but on the mend, snuffling soft thanks to visitors through the fence.

We were devastated. All of us. How could this happen? People called across the street angrily to me: “Who would do a thing like this?” I hurried on.

Names of suspects were already just beginning to come to whispering lips, and I saw a very dark chapter ahead for the neighborhood, when, just in the nick of time, Berenice figured it out. The greens the vet had produced from Wilbur’s stomach probably had not been Whole Foods arugula. They were probably dandelions from the yard.

The landlord had sent someone to spray the weeds with a herbicide the day before Wilbur was stricken. It may have been a sloppy, thoughtless thing to do, walking around spraying chemicals where a pig was grazing, but it wasn’t attempted pig murder.

And it wasn’t one of us. No one from our neighborhood had tried to kill Wilbur. The Whole Foods shoppers were off. The man who walks by haughtily with one hand pinching his nose has a right to his opinion, as long as he doesn’t try to kill anybody.

Parents with kids, couples and individuals lined up at the proper social distances waiting for their turns to converse with Wilbur.

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I can’t help feeling this whole saga attracted much more attention and evoked way more feeling from people than it would have in ordinary times. I can’t explain it exactly, even to myself. But the coronavirus crisis does not only or merely shut us down and close our hearts in fear. It does some of that. Then somehow through some magic it also opens us up, makes us more raw and exposed to the nature and meaning of life.

It would be stupid, this long before we even know what the full extent will be, to get all wet-eyed and philosophical about the good side of anything that is about to happen. There may not be any good side at all when we’re done. Certainly there will be no good side for people who die or for those they leave behind.

But something else is going on as well, an opening, a moment of quiet and reflection, an official timeout that nobody wanted but we all get to experience.

People don’t get in their cars and bring Wilbur bouquets from Whole Foods just because it’s weird to see a pig in the city. More than that is going on. The pig is some kind of touchstone, a connection with certainty.

Sadly, we were also all too quick to believe he had been deliberately poisoned, as if that were another certainty, a darker inevitability. I think our hearts are working deep puzzles right now, whether our heads acknowledge it or not.

I was so happy when I found out he was going to be OK. And I was really glad when I learned that nobody had tried to kill him, even though I was pretty sure I had worked out who it was. That’s when I decided. I better read the book.
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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze