Stephanie takes Muta outside Cultivate Coffee in Ypsilanti, Mich. so he can pee and eat on Sunday May 26, 2018. Stephanie’s affection for pigs started when Stephanie and her husband, Jeff, took in their first pig, Muta, about a decade ago while living in California.

Family To Us

Stephanie Rowland acknowledges that she spoils her children.

She serves them them local, organic rice milk and gluten-free cereal. One needs cranberry juice instead of water, and another gets a regular manicure. They won’t even touch a carrot that’s been on the floor.

These “children”, they’re not human — they’re pigs.

But that doesn’t make them any less family to Stephanie. She and her two partners, Benny Danovi, and Jeff Rowland, have been involved in legal battles for months, fighting the city of Ypsilanti, Michigan to hold onto their four unusual companions. Now, they’re looking for an alternative place to live. This isn’t Stephanie’s first fight to keep her pigs, however. In the past, she’s gone to such lengths to give up her home, rather than part with her pets. “The pigs mean so much to me. We’ve been homeless to hold onto them.” says Stephanie. They play a huge role in the family’s lives.

Stephanie feeds her pig, Muta, some organic rice milk and oatmeal with a spoon at her home in Ypsilanti, Mich on Tuesday, May 1st, 2018.

In the early hours at the Rowland house, Stephanie yells “Muta! Wake up!” in the hopes that getting her pig out of bed will be easy, but it never is. Stephanie’s calls to rise for the day are met with grunts and squeals — a pig acting like a tired teenager every morning. Stephanie and Muta head to the front yard to get some fresh air and wake up.

The potbelly pig is named after Japanese professional wrestler Keiji Mutoh, or “The Great Muta.” Stephanie knew that letting her skeptical partner, Jeff, pick Muta’s name would help him fall in love with the pig-owner lifestyle.

The Rowland family sits with their pig, Muta, and their son, Jason at their home in Ypsilanti, Mich. on Monday, May 7, 2018.

After Muta and Stephanie have risen for the morning, Muta will spend the day at Stephanie’s side as she takes care of her son, Jason, and does other chores around the house. Sometimes Muta will even accompany the family to a coffee shop. During summer afternoons, Stephanie will lay outside in the sun with her pigs, her husband and child. “Yumyum loves the sun,” Stephanie says affectionally of Muta.

Stephanie paints Muta’s nails blue one evening. Muta is covered to help him fall asleep while he gets his nails painted.

Once in a while, between taking care of her son, and bus visits to the food pantry to stock her shelves with food for her and the pigs, she gives Muta a manicure. The blue polish is her favorite and complements his course, dark hair.

Stephanie, left, and members of her family unload her car after a trip to a Ypsilanti food pantry on Saturday, May 19, 2018. Some of the food from the pantry will go to feeding the pigs.

“Locals love the pigs.” Stephanie says. And they really do seem to take an interest in Stephanie and her pigs wherever they go.

People walking by Stephanie’s house will turn their heads and inquire about the pigs. If Stephanie takes a walk around the block, locals will slow down in their cars to get a better look. Stephanie takes Muta to visit Yspilanti’s Cultivate Coffee & Tap House, they’re met with shrieks from curious locals—mostly positive reactions. “I want a piggy!” one woman at the coffee shop says. “It’s amazing the connection that she has with that animal,” another says of Muta. “I thought it was a dog at first,” says one man.

Stephanie’s affection for pigs started when Stephanie and her husband, Jeff, took in their first pig, Muta, about a decade ago while living in California.

After seeing an ad in the newspaper in 2004 for a litter of pigs from a backyard breeder, Stephanie visited the adoption home. She picked up each squealing pig one by one, then looked down, and saw one pig that was smaller than the others. As soon as Stephanie held him, she felt an instant connection. “So I brought him home in a backpack, and said, ‘Surprise, honey!’”

After the initial resistance, her husband, Jeff eventually conceded to love Muta, and not much later, Muta was the newest member of the family.

Stephanie planned on turning Muta into a therapy animal “to take him to hospitals and nursing homes and such.” But Muta’s therapeutic effect on Stephanie soon revealed itself during one low point of Stephanie’s life, just 10 days after she adopted her.

“Muta helps me with my whole cocktail of disorders.” Stephanie recounts. “I was stuck on the side of the road, no cell phone, it was 10:30 at night… we were on a pretty unused road, and life had just gotten to be too much.” Stephanie says. “I was sobbing, was going to try to end it, and was reaching for my scissors in my bag, when I found Muta’s little sweater that we had for him… That was the first time Muta saved my life… He’s everything. Before (my son) Jason, he was the most important person in my life.”

That was the day that Muta turned into Stephanie’s unofficial emotional support pig, and literally hasn’t left her side since.

Muta wasn’t an “only child” for long —Stephanie soon ended up with 5 pigs in her home in Ventura County, California. Neighbors started to take notice, and various neighborhood regulatory committees received eight complaints of odors, waste water runoff, bites, and other violations related to the pigs, according to a public document released by the Ventura County Research Agency.

The Agency quickly decided that only one of her four pigs would be allowed to stay, and after an appeal, the City Planning Commission agreed.

“They are our children. They are our life. I mean how do you choose, you know?,” Stephanie said at the time in a video caught by a local news station.

Stephanie put three of her four pigs in a foster home, but couldn’t let go of Muta even for the short time that she looked for a neighborhood that would accept her pigs. With the commission’s deadline to ‘get rid of the pigs or get out of town,’ Stephanie chose homelessness, rather than to live away from Muta, a beloved member of the family she considered essential for her mental health.

“Muta was homeless with us, living in the backseat of our convertible, hanging out inside coffee shops with us, going everywhere with us. He never left our side.”

Eventually, Stephanie’s boyfriend, Benny, found a job in Michigan, and Stephanie got pregnant with her first and only child, Jason. The family picked up their pigs from foster care, and road-tripped across the country, camping along the way. They arrived at their new Ypsilanti home with their four pigs in September 2016, Stephanie eight months pregnant.

Now, Stephanie and her two partners are reliving a familiar experience — facing a challenge from Ypsilanti, a city, which they feel has turned against them.

The problem started in Aug. 2017, when the owner of The Queens Residence Bed & Breakfast, an inn near Stephanie’s house, filed a complaint that the pigs were hurting room sales. “These are large farm animals that have no business being in the city. Quite frankly, it is disgusting,” the inn owner said in a note to the city.

After receiving the complaint, police cited Stephanie at her home on Aug. 21, 2017. “I was outside, getting ready to watch the 2017 eclipse with Jason, when a policeman rolled up and handed me a ticket!” Stephanie said.

After refusing to relocate the pigs, Stephanie ended up in Ypsilanti’s 14A-2 district court, arguing that keeping her pigs should be considered on the basis of “reasonable accommodation” under the Fair Housing Act. Based on her reading of the judge’s demeanor, she was confident that she’d be able to keep all four of her pigs.

Stephanie cries in the courthouse after hearing the Washtenaw County Court’s decision on her emotional support pigs. They will only allow her to keep three of her four beloved pigs, allowing 15 days to get them out of her Ypsilanti home. Stephanie says she cannot live without the pigs, as they all serve different functions in supporting her. “This decision took me by complete surprise,” she says after the hearing. Now Stephanie will have to try to find another home that will accept her pigs. Stephanie has moved more than once in a search to find accommodations for herself and her pigs, and insists that she needs them in order to stay healthy and live independently.

After a fairly protracted legal battle and a corresponding appeal, the courts handed down a final ruling against Stephanie on March 21, like in California, only allowing one pig to stay. Stephanie broke down in tears outside the courtroom — another loss against a city with intolerance for pigs as pets. “It was a complete surprise,” Stephanie said after the ruling.

Stephanie sits with her pig, Sophie, after the court decision Wednesday, March 21, 2018.

Now it’s just a matter of time for Stephanie, who only has weeks to figure out where to move again because she refuses to let go of her pigs.

Stephanie’s pig, Vinnie, boards her car on the way to their foster home in Armada, Michigan.

Now, like in California, by court order, Stephanie has three of her four pigs in a foster home in Armada, Michigan, two hours away from her Ypsilanti home. But she feels she can’t permanently live that far away from Ypsilanti. “I can’t leave the city, we have too much family here … we need to find a home nearby.”

Stephanie fills out a pay day loan application on top of a cargo bin on her bed with her son, Jason in her Ypsilanti home on Tuesday, May 29, 2018.

And again, her favorite pig, Muta, is still living with her in her Ypsilanti home. She visits the other pigs as often as she can, bringing other members of the family to see them as well.

Stephanie leans in to kiss her pig, Sophie, who is in foster care while Stephanie searches for a pig-friendly neighborhood, while her partner, Benny holds her son, Jason on Saturday, May 29, 2018.

Stephanie hopes to find another home soon, but she said one thing will remain true, wherever she goes — Muta will not be far from Stephanie’s side. “If Muta gets booted we are living at my parents’ campground.” she says.

Stephanie is currently trying to allow for more time from the courts to search for a new home in a different city for her family.

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