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College Point veteran trains pet pig for therapeutic role

Photo by Christina Santucci
By Joe Anuta

Nadine Darsanlal’s life was never the same after she teamed up with her service dog Harvey three years ago, and now she is trying to help others discover the therapeutic power of animals by training her second pet — a clever micro pig named Wilbur.

Darsanlal found Harvey after serving in the U.S. Navy from 1997-2001. After she got out she contracted an illness that left her partially disabled, she said. The College Point resident had trouble bending down to pick objects off the ground and getting out of bed in the morning due to chronic pain, but found relief after her application for a service dog was accepted by an organization called Dogs for Deaf and Disabled Americans, which partnered her with the pooch. Harvey picks up objects, turns on lights, puts on shoes and generally lifts up her spirits.

“He changed my life. Big time,” she said. “These dogs are not just here to help you physically. They are here to help mentally.”

Harvey is a legal service animal recognized by the Americans with Disabilities Act and is allowed to accompany her everywhere.

About a year and a half ago, Darsanlal decided to purchase a pig as a playmate for Harvey, she said. When the tiny porker arrived at their home, he became fast friends with his canine co-habitant and had a great personality. That is when she decided to train Wilbur to become a therapy pet, using her knowledge of training Harvey.

The sow can shake hands, sit and perform all manner of tricks. If the word “apple juice” is spoken, even from 20 yards away, it will come running.

Darsanlal has taken the duo to area schools, including the Renaissance Charter School in Jackson Heights. The principal there declared Harvey and Wilbur well-behaved and “a delight” for both students and teachers.

But it might be difficult for Wilbur to be recognized as a therapy animal in New York City.

An international nonprofit called Pet Partners registers therapy animals, partnering with the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in the New York City area. A registered therapy animal does not enjoy special distinctions like Harvey, but rather gets access to hospitals and nursing homes in the nonprofit’s network, which are assured the animals are properly trained.

Recently, the nonprofit has been accepting applications on behalf of pigs in other areas.

It might seem like Wilbur would be a perfect fit as well. He appears to be a good-tempered, shrewd, if not slightly mischievous animal. But it is not legal to keep pigs as pets in the five boroughs, according to the city Department of Health. And Pet Partners would not register an unauthorized animal, according to the nonprofit.

But Darsanlal is not fazed. She has been visiting schools and other venues in the area to raise money for Dogs for Deaf and Disabled Americans, so others can have the life-altering experience that Harvey has brought her.

“I think I’ll be doing this for the rest of my life,” she said.

And everywhere she goes with Harvey, to the delight of (just about) everyone, Wilbur can typically be found waddling after him.

Reach reporter Joe Anuta by e-mail at januta@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4566.

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