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West Neighborhoods
LuLu the heroic pig now known worldwide

Her fame and girth still growing

Tuesday, April 09, 2002

By Michael A. Fuoco, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Once upon a time in a land not far away -- Beaver Falls, to be exact -- Jo Ann and Jack Altsman agreed to baby-sit their daughter's Vietnamese pot-bellied pig, LuLu.

Toshiyuki Hirose, from Nippon TV Network Corp., films LuLu at her home in Beaver Falls yesterday. Click here to see a LuLu photo gallery. (Annie O'Neill, Post-Gazette)

LuLu endeared herself to the Altsmans, and they to her. Daughter Jackie kept putting off fetching her pet, and before long, LuLu belonged to Jack and Jo Ann.

LuLu grew and grew, from 4 pounds in 1997 to a whopping 150 a year later, but with each pound the attachment between the couple and the porker grew, too.

Happier a couple there had never been when, on Aug. 4, 1998, LuLu showed herself to be more than just a pig with a penchant for jelly donuts. Jo Ann says it was magical.

Jack was fishing on Lake Erie when Jo Ann, 61, had a heart attack, her second in 18 months.

She threw an alarm clock through a window of their vacation trailer at Presque Isle and yelled for help -- all to no avail. Bear, their dog, an American Eskimo, just barked.

LuLu cried "big, fat tears," Jo Ann recalled, but she didn't cry all the way home. She knew what to do.

She squeezed through the doggy door and somehow pushed open the gate. According to villagers, she then lay down in traffic.

One nice man eventually stopped and followed LuLu to the trailer. Seeing the cuts LuLu had suffered on her stomach in squeezing through the small doggy door, the man yelled, "Lady, your pig's in distress."

"I'm in distress, too," came the reply. "Please call an ambulance."

Jo Ann was flown to The Medical Center, Beaver, for open-heart surgery. Had 15 more minutes passed, doctors told her, she would have died.

The village crier -- actually, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette -- shouted LuLu's exploits in a story Oct. 10, 1998.

And then the magic really began.

Yesterday, Jo Ann related how LuLu's fame had grown along with her weight -- to a whopping 335 pounds now.

Listening was yet another film crew, this one from the New York bureau of the Nippon TV Network, which came to Beaver Falls to wrap up a segment for its "Unbelievable News of the World," seen weekly by about 50 million people.

As everyone sat around a crowded table, sharing a feast of chicken and pasta and salad and cookies -- no pork, thank you -- Jo Ann continued the tale of the magic pig.

The biggest newspaper in the biggest city in the land, The New York Times, ran a front page story about her. LuLu was in USA Today. And People magazine. News organizations and TV shows from Germany to Australia to Italy picked up the tale of the Big Pig Who Could (And Did).

There was a story in National Geographic's "Amazing Animals." And an appearance on the "Regis & Kathie Lee Show," where Jo Ann got a kiss from Johnny Mathis and LuLu got a fruit plate from Annie Potts.

"Regis [Philbin] was great -- he bought a big trophy for LuLu himself. Everyone was wonderful to her. Except Kathie Lee [Gifford]. She didn't even come into the green room to talk to Johnny Mathis, or LuLu, for that matter.

"Of course, she is a pig," Jo Ann said and then paused, hoping to avoid a possible misunderstanding. "I mean, LuLu's a pig."

There also was "Unsolved Mysteries"--despite a reward, the man who followed LuLu to the trailer remains unknown--and "Late Show With David Letterman," where LuLu became friends with George Clooney, himself a Vietnamese pot-bellied pig owner.

"He said he's lost four girlfriends for sleeping with his pig. Can you believe that?" Jo Ann said. None of the ladies in waiting could believe it.

So enamored was Clooney of LuLu that one day, he telephoned Oprah Winfrey on air after she said a dog that used a MAC machine for its paraplegic owner was the smartest animal around.

"I met someone who's smarter," Clooney said. Oprah sent a jet to pick up LuLu and Jo Anne and Jack for an appearance on her show.

At an inn in New York -- the Mayflower Hotel -- LuLu received a Tiffany gold hero's medal from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. One of Clooney's pigs, Ralph, made the presentation.

Elizabeth Taylor, who was in attendance, told Jo Ann it was "the only time I've been in a room when all the photographers took pictures of another woman."

"She meant it, too," Jo Ann said. "She didn't say it lightly."

And there was "Good Morning America." And "20/20" with Hugh Downs on his last show. "He was so sweet. I tell people LuLu did Hugh Downs in."

There also was "Animal Planet" and the Discovery Channel. Jay Leno offered to provide a sleeper train car for LuLu to travel to the West Coast, but the couple declined.

"Ripley's Believe It or Not" so believed it that it sent host Dean Cain, formerly TV's Superman, to the Altsman home for filming.

"He sat right there and ate, but I didn't know who he was," Jo Ann said. "All I thought was, 'Why are they putting all that makeup on this guy? He's so cute.' "

Disney, which knows a few things about animals, is making a movie about LuLu. LuLu takes up a chapter in the book "Triumphs of the Heart: Miraculous True Stories of the Power of Love."

And Random House is publishing a book about LuLu and Bear titled, "Beauty in the Beast," that will be distributed to school children.

"She is a princess," Jo Ann said as the Japanese TV crew finished eating yesterday.

And, with a life expectancy of up to 60 years -- LuLu turns 5 on July 4 -- she probably will live happily ever after.

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