NEW YORK CITY (SBG) — Living somewhere as densely populated as New York City is a good way to reduce your tolerance for large crowds. Even before the pandemic triggered a collective aversion to those scenarios in which personal space became a distant fantasy, the average New Yorker was unlikely to join a horde of other people voluntarily.
Crowded subways on the morning commute provided more than enough time spent in close quarters with strangers without subjecting oneself to Times Square on New Year's Eve or a Saturday afternoon of shopping in SoHo.
But lately, a Brooklyn firehouse has been providing a very compelling — and adorable — reason to pause in a throng of onlookers.
While gazing upon the swarm that periodically gathers outside of Engine 239 in the Park Slope neighborhood may send an automatic signal to the brain to cross the street in a measure of avoidance, listening to this instinct would deprive you of the unique opportunity to feed Cheerios to a baby pig perched atop a firetruck. And that's a scene that even the most hardened of souls can agree is worthy of a stop.
The pig of the hour is named Penny, and luckily, she loves a crowd. She's particularly fond of having a multitude of outstretched palms from which to gobble up her favorite cereal. It's a win-win situation, for as pleased as Penny is to have so many hands feeding her, those clustered around the firetruck are just as delighted to feel Penny's snout tickle their skin in her unending quest for sustenance. Mixed in among excited exclamations and shrieks of joy is a burning question that anyone meeting Penny for the first time seems inclined to ask — what is a pig doing at a firehouse?
If Penny was a Dalmatian instead of a pig, nobody would question her presence.
Few, however, would be able to explain the origins of that tradition. After all, the pairing of Dalmatians and firefighters is so familiar that it's easy to accept without much inquiry, perhaps alongside the accompanying assumption that the polka-dotted pups have always served as firehouse mascots.
The history of Dalmatians as fire dogs in the United States does, in fact, date back quite some time, but the athletic breed earned its modern-day reputation by doing far more than simply looking good in the window of a shiny red fire engine racing through town.
Back in the 18th century, Dalmatians were regarded as excellent companions for carriage drivers, given their remarkable endurance, their commendable speed, and their apparent propensity for bonding with horses. Fire departments, who relied on horse-drawn carriages at the time, began to catch onto this trend, recruiting Dalmatians to run alongside their engines to clear the path, calm the horses, and protect against theft.
The Sun, a now-defunct New York newspaper, published an article in 1912 detailing the frequency of heroic fire dogs killed in service while accompanying horse-drawn carriages and speculating about the role that Dalmatians would play when motors inevitably replaced all of the horses.
A mention was made of a Dalmatian named Dora who, if she wasn't grabbed and placed in the wagon when her company responded to a fire, would try to run alongside the motorized engine for as long as she was able. Ultimately, The Sun hypothesized that the dogs, unlike the horses, were here to stay, even if their purpose became less practical and more closely tied to companionship.
The Fire Department regulations provide that there may be kept in a fire house one dog, one cat and singing birds, The Sun said.
According to The Sun, cats and birds also found homes in firehouses in the early 1900s, as did dog breeds beyond the classic Dalmatian. Other unusual mascots throughout time have included a chicken named Pudgie who was shared among a semi-pro firefighter football team and a monkey from Indonesia named Mrs. Herman who lived at a New York City station in the early 1900s. Although the official FDNY fire safety mascot is a cartoon Dalmatian named Hot Dog, an Instagram account called FDPUP currently highlights all of the different pups who hang out at New York City stations — from bulldogs to chihuahua mixes.
For FDNY firefighter Darren Harris, a Dalmatian wasn't an option. Nor was any other breed, due to his five-year-old daughter's fear of dogs. So instead, Harris had to find a family pet that would fit his daughter's comfort level. And that's how he ended up adopting a tiny pink pig from a farm that was going out of business in Virginia.
In Harris' Orange County home, Penny, who sleeps indoors and has plenty of room in the yard to roam around, quickly became a beloved member of the family. "If everybody’s in one room, she’ll come into that room. She doesn’t like to be alone," said Harris.
On the days that Harris travels to Brooklyn, the incredibly social Penny gets to spend time with hundreds of friends. For a few hours during his shift, Harris lets passersby visit with his lovable little pig and hands out large amounts of Cheerios and carrots to anyone who would like to feed Penny by hand.
Typically, he plans for these hours to coincide with the end of the school day, and it becomes a prime educational opportunity for children raised in the city who otherwise have very little experience with farm animals. "I didn't know pigs ate Cheerios," one boy exclaimed, while a mother tried to help her apprehensive toddler conquer a fear of the unfamiliar creature.
Enjoying quality time with Penny isn't only for the kids, though. One woman who hopped up onto the fire truck to coax Penny into her lap with a handful of cereal remarked that Penny was by far her most exciting celebrity encounter.
This is more exciting than seeing Kenny Chesney live," she said. "I'm shaking.
From the size of the crowds that gather outside of the firehouse, it's clear that Penny has indeed achieved celebrity status.
"No flash photography. Are you on the guest list?" Harris joked.
Penny's fame isn't limited to Park Slope. Fans frequently travel from other Brooklyn neighborhoods and different boroughs for the chance to meet Penny. She has also amassed a sizable Instagram following.
Harris keeps the account active with snapshots of Penny at the firehouse and behind-the-scenes footage of Penny's life outside of her twice-weekly meet-and-greets. One of the most surprising things that Harris has learned about Penny since adopting her is that she's constantly eager to learn new skills, and her forays into numerous hobbies are well-documented on Instagram.
So far, she's an accomplished painter who has sold a series of limited-edition creations, she knows how to swim, and she's getting the hang of skateboarding, although Harris needs to get her a larger board as she continues to grow.
And grow she will. Harris has seen the full-grown size of both of Penny’s parents, so he has some understanding of just how large Penny will be when she reaches adulthood. But no matter Penny’s eventual size, Harris intends to continue bringing her to all of his 24-hour shifts at the station.
Beyond serving the previously unknown needs of Park Slope community members, Penny has taken on an indispensable role for the first responders at Engine 239. She may not be able to clear a path in front of the fire engine as Dalmatians of yore once did, but her playful demeanor undoubtedly inspires brighter moments during difficult shifts at the station.
Although Penny might be the very first pig in this position, emotional support animals for firefighters have become more common in recent years. Several studies have found that firefighters are at high risk for post-traumatic stress disorder and associated disorders as a result of the stressful and traumatic events that they encounter on duty.
Programs like the California-based nonprofit First Responder Therapy Dogs bring trained therapy dogs to visit with first responders. Their dogs provide emotional support at fire stations and visit those stationed at wildfire base camps as well. There’s also Puppies Behind Bars, an organization that pairs service dogs in training with incarcerated individuals. Upon successfully completing their training, the dogs are then matched to first responders and war veterans seeking some extra support.
Animals like Penny, who are not specifically trained for the purpose of therapy, can still provide valuable companionship to firefighters. One of the most well-known examples of such was Twenty, a Dalmatian gifted to Ladder Company 20 in Manhattan following the collapse of the World Trade Center. Throughout her lifetime, Twenty helped members of the ladder company cope with the devastating losses that they experienced on 9/11.
While National Fire Pup Day was observed just last week on Oct. 1, every day that Penny is on duty feels like a celebration of the fire pig. If you’d like to join all of her other fans and meet Penny personally, there’s a bit of luck involved when it comes to the timing. Her schedule at the station isn’t publicized, partly in an effort to at least somewhat control the crowd size. The firefighters at the station are still on active duty and need to be prepared to respond to a call at any moment, even when Penny is hogging the spotlight.
Penny doesn’t join the firefighters on their calls. For her own safety, she stays behind and either goes on house watch or gets put in the kitchen, only riding in the engine during occasional runs to the store. Harris told the New York Post that Penny sleeps well throughout the night in a dog bed and will just briefly lift her head up at the sound of a call before drifting back to her slumbers.
And as the firefighters head out to the call, they find comfort in the fact that Penny will be waiting for them when they return, ready to bring a big smile back to their faces.