Exiting her Audi with aplomb, LiLou the therapy pig prefers one terminal at San Francisco International Airport over another. It’s not because there’s a Cinnabon there or because she has miles with the Star Alliance, but because the floors are different. Her cloven hooves slip on terrazzo, and carpeting preserves her dignity.
We’re walking through an employee security checkpoint on a drizzly Sunday afternoon in January, when several flights have been canceled and the airport is oddly quiet. A security administrator talks nonchalantly about not permitting LiLou on an escalator, because therapy dogs have cut their paws on them. But LiLou’s handler, Tatyana Danilova, knows the drill: Her charge requires a little bit of cajoling, but she rides a service elevator up to the main concourse. Today, LiLou seems to be struggling a little more than usual, owing to the surplus of culinary aromas.
“This is not a favorite moment of LiLou’s,” Danilova says, after unsuccessfully trying to lure her into the lift with some blueberries.
Eventually, we get where we need to be, and soon LiLou is wagging her tail again. (As with dogs, it indicates she’s happy.) When she struts through the terminal — or even the designated smoking area outside — virtually everyone who isn’t already absorbed by their phone whips it out to film her as she passes. It almost looks like an episode of Black Mirror.
LiLou is a 2-year-old, 45-pound Juliana pig — the smallest breed, but still five pounds heavier than the maximum weight of a carry-on — and the first non-canine member of SFO’s Wag Brigade. It’s a longstanding partnership between the airport and the San Francisco Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and beyond her duties cheering up hospital patients and residents of retirement communities, LiLou and Danilova volunteer one two-hour shift per month, helping anxious travelers keep their stress levels down. Today is LiLou’s third airport appearance.
It seems to work very well. People laugh or coo, “Look at her nails!” (They’re painted red.) They admire her pink tutu and ask if they can approach her — which they can, but only from the front and while crouching to her eye level. Of the 10 or so commands LiLou knows, one is “photo.” The word gets her to sit still, and she’s usually rewarded with some Cheerios. When she looks up, she seems to squint, and it’s hard not to anthropomorphize the expression and read it as a satisfied smile.
Airport representative Jennifer Kazarian is pleased with LiLou’s job performance, calling her “very popular” and “beloved.”
“There are 25 dogs in the Wag Brigade,” she says. “Most come once a week, on the same scheduled day and time. All of our handlers are volunteers. SFO formed a partnership with the SPCA’s animal therapy program, and most of the dogs have a year or more experience prior to coming to the airport.”
Therapy animals aren’t merely chosen for their mellifluous oinking and the breadth of their tutu wardrobe.
According to the SFPCA, they must also adhere to contemporary standards of woke-ness: “At a minimum, AAT pets must be solicitous and fully comfortable with handling. In other words, pets must be interested in and eager to approach people and accept handling, regardless of the person’s age, gender, race, size, mobility equipment usage, and apparel.”
And LiLou is the first of her kind in the world — or so Danilova and her boyfriend Anil think. They live in Nob Hill, where the neighbors don’t mind having a pig in the building because she’s hypoallergenic and doesn’t bark. (She occasionally squeals when she’s hungry, but they’ve been very careful not to reward that behavior by feeding her.)
Although she gets regular walks, LiLou is trained to use a litter box. She sleeps in a teepee. She eats a vegetarian diet of celery sticks, cucumbers, carrots, pineapples, and mango, supplemented by protein pellets sourced from a store in Petaluma. (As for Danilova, she considers herself a pescatarian. No, she does not eat pork.)
Introducing urban dwellers to a universally recognized animal they might go years without actually encountering on their own is rewarding, Danilova says.
“She brings a novelty and joy to people,” she says. “Many people have not seen a pig in real life or have misconceptions about pigs. They think they’re dirty or only for consumption, and we get to show something different: They’re very clean and they’re intelligent.”
“People come up to us: ‘Oh, I’ve had a terrible day, this made my day, this was the most exciting thing,’ ” she adds. “They’re stressed walking by, and all of a sudden, they’re saying their layovers were not as bad.”
You might think LiLou would be an alpha to bask in so much attention. She may be terrific and she is certainly radiant, but she is also humble. Danilova calls her “shy.”
“She’s definitely not a dominant pig,” she says. “We have a very close bond. She’s my herd, and she knows I’m her herd. I’m her top pig. She’s very curious because she’s so intelligent, but she’s very gentle. If she smells a hint of food, she’ll have to investigate where it is — but pretty much all pigs are like that.
“Her gentle personality allows us to participate in this type of program,” she adds. “We love to cuddle when we’re home.”
At this point, there’s the closest thing to a rush of people, including a big gaggle of tourists in matching T-shirts. A group of kids from Seattle cackles at the sight of LiLou. One of them, a special-needs child, claps with delight. A smartly dressed female flight attendant asks about the protocol for a photo, adding, “I don’t want to get in trouble!” Even when her tutu slips to one side, LiLou is a dainty stepper, and when Danilova says, “Harness,” LiLou knows an adjustment is coming. She’s even cooperative when a small GoPro is strapped to her neck for a few minutes. Another flight attendant marches backward on a moving walkway while filming her, to keep the pig in the frame. An older couple, one of them in a wheelchair pushed by a red-vested attendant, ask Anil for LiLou cards for their grandchildren.
He gives out snouts, too. They look a little like oxygen masks.
Suddenly, there’s lightning. Anticipating thunder, I look to Danilova to see if LiLou might freak out, but she doesn’t. (She did OK on the Fourth of July, too.) Outside Gate 80, where Flight 153 to Houston is delayed, yet another flight attendant runs over, gushing about the potbellied pig she’d had growing up and mourning the fact that her work schedule rules out having a companion animal. Then it’s music time: LiLou steps on the brightly colored keys of a baby’s toy, making sounds.
Of course, LiLou can’t please everyone. One middle-aged woman walking briskly from her arrival gate throws a glare of such intensity that I imagine it’s her first visit to the Bay Area and within two minutes of landing, every preconceived notion she holds about San Francisco has already been validated. But unlike the times when I used to dress up as the Easter Bunny and wave to kids outside my parents’ florist, no toddlers burst into tears upon approaching. (In defense of the sob-prone, I was nearly eight feet tall if you include the ears, and LiLou comes to about knee height.)
Danilova doesn’t think meeting LiLou will spur people to acquire pigs of their own. For one thing, her vet is an hour away, in Castro Valley. For another, her innate curiosity and appetite can be challenging.
“She won’t eat everything, but she may find something and you have to be very quick to say, ’No!’ ” Danilova says. “You have to watch for other dogs and other people, pig-proof your house, and keep away things you don’t want her to chew on.”
“I use a clicker and a lot of positive reinforcement,” she adds. “For her, it’s a game.”
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