It’s been almost a month, but no one’s come calling for Cheech.
The gray and white potbellied pig, about the size a terrier and weighing about 20 pounds, was found wandering down the 3900 block of Custer Avenue in Brookfield on Nov. 2.
But Cheech — short for chicharron (that’s fried pork rind, in Spanish) — has a cozy home if no one comes to claim him. He’s staying at the Exotic Wildlife Sanctuary, conveniently located in the shadow of the Brookfield water tower at a house on Arthur Avenue.
Yes, there’s a wildlife sanctuary in Brookfield, and Cheech is the second animal it has taken in as a rescue.
Brookfield police kept the pig for two days, believing that the owner would come to claim him. One of the owners of the sanctuary called police and told them she’d be happy to take in the stray.
After two days of police personnel walking and feeding the pig, Acting Police Chief James Episcopo visited the shelter and decided to turn the pig over to them.
While the sanctuary’s operators, Elizabeth and Michael Kleist, hope someday to buy a rural property where they can house more animals and give them room to roam, for now the sanctuary uses the couple’s home, yard and garage to house approximately two dozen animals, including reptiles, primates and other species.
“I stopped working a year ago,” said Elizabeth, who left her job as a veterinary technician to tend to their collection of animals. “It’s a full-time position.”
While the Kleists have collected exotic animals for years, their home has become an official sanctuary only recently. The sanctuary was licensed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in May, and it operates as a 501c3 nonprofit.
Prior to forming the sanctuary, the Kleists ran a company that exported exotic fish and coral for private collectors. They also started Area 51 Exotics, a company that did many of the things the Kleists still do, such as visiting schools, libraries, senior centers and private events to show off their animals and talk about the challenges of owning exotic animals.
What the couple can do now that they weren’t able to do before is accept animals as rescues. And they’re keen to do that because there are always people who buy exotic animals as pets when they’re babies — i.e. when they’re cute. But, like Raze the fox, they aren’t so cute when they get older.
“Not everything can be a pet,” said Elizabeth, who believes Cheech was simply turned loose by an owner who may have believed they owned a micro-pig. But a couple of months later (Cheech is probably about 6-9 months old), that owner may have been shocked when the micro-pig had grown to 20 pounds and realized it was a full-size potbelly, which can grow to 2 feet tall and weigh up to 200 pounds.
Most of the fur-bearing animals — including a pair of tamarins, a ring-tailed lemur (on loan from a Florida breeder), a gregarious capuchin monkey named Lucian and, of course, Cheech and the family dog, a Boston terrier — are kept in cages inside the house.
However, Cheech has been trained well enough to grunt by the door when he needs to go outside to go to bathroom, and the rest of the primates get spells out of their cages several times a day to explore the house, Elizabeth said.
“Only the pig and the dog go outside,” she said of the animals kept in the house. “We try to make the neighbors happy.”
Actually, there are two animals that live outside all the time. One is Raze, a white-phase red fox that was left behind by its owner inside an apartment in Bolingbrook. While Raze is a striking animal to look at, his smell gives a good indication of why its owner abandoned him. Raze was the sanctuary’s first rescue animal.
The other is Quill, a North American porcupine, which Michael and Elizabeth acquired from the Big Run Wolf Ranch in Lemont, where the couple gives presentations on exotic animals once a month at open houses.
“The fox is a good teaching tool,” Elizabeth said. “As a puppy he looked adorable.”
Meanwhile, the garage has been turned into an environmentally-controlled home for a few fur-bearing mammals and Michael’s collection of snakes — a dozen of them, all venomous.
The snakes, including a couple of different kinds of rattlesnakes, vipers and cobras, are kept in their aquariums under lock and key.
“Mike kept reptiles as a kid,” Elizabeth said. “He’d hide them in the closet and his mom would find them.”
Michael, who graduated from St. Barbara School in Brookfield and Nazareth Academy in LaGrange Park, is a veterinary technician at the Center for Comparative Medicine, Northwestern University Medical Center in Chicago.
Elizabeth doesn’t handle the snakes, but she does like Rizzo the monitor lizard, which she picks up and cuddles like a pet dog.
“Rizzo came to us from a reptile rescue,” she said. “It was left behind by an owner on the front porch of [a shelter].”
Cheech, meanwhile, has become like a part of the family. Elizabeth’s 3-year-old daughter, Selene, walks him around the house on a leash and says, “That’s my brother.”
Unless its owner claims him, said Elizabeth, the pig will probably stay with them.