"I am very proud to be called a pig. It stands for pride, integrity and guts." -- Ronald Reagan

Have you ever played the game Word Association? You know, I say something and you respond with the first word that comes to mind. For example, if I say "pig," you might say, "Porky, plump, greasy, messy."

But what if someone else answers "lovable, shy, cuddly, playful, smart?" You might question, "Are we talking about the same animal?" And I will answer back, "That's right!"

One of the very first nursery rhymes I heard before I learned to read was, "This Little Piggy Went to Market." I loved that nursery rhyme despite the fact I never saw a real pig until much later in life.

I generally pictured pigs as chubby creatures that wallowed in mud or basked in the sun all day and showed little life except when mealtime rolled around. And then it was every pig for himself.

It's my understanding the first potbellied pigs were introduced into our country through Canada during the mid-eighties and became an instant hit.

And an untold number of folks rushed to purchase them because of their novelty. Sadly, most of those same people were unprepared to care for the cute piglets once they began to grow. And interest in the pigs ended almost as quickly as it started.

You can imagine my surprise when I attended the Furry Pet Faire in Concord a couple weeks ago. There in the center of the fairground was a booth sponsored by the local chapter of the California Potbellied Pig Association!

Goaded by curiosity, I headed to the booth and was disappointed not to see a live potbellied pig but an animated Disney pig in its place. The reason was understandable. It would have been inhumane to expose the potbellies to the midday heat without adequate accommodations.

I had a dozen questions to ask the affable gentleman behind the table, Chris Christensen, a retired schoolteacher and current CFO of the association.

I remarked that I thought the day of the pet potbellied pigs was long gone. He reassured me there is still a significant number of owners all across the country, despite the pigs' decline in popularity.

Chris and his wife Marcie, president of the potbellied pig association, are surrogate parents of two they rescued from shelters and raise in their home.

Chris says it was Marcie who first became interested in potbellied pigs after reading the book "Charlotte's Web."

Chris invited my daughter and me to his house to see his potbellied pigs and get an understanding as to why they make such wonderful pets. Like it's often quoted, "A picture is worth a thousand words".

Chris and Marcie live in a modest, well-kept house in a cozy neighborhood surrounded by mature trees that provide ideal shade and a welcome relief for their pets, especially during the long hot summer days.

Almost everything from the welcome mat to the fixtures throughout their house has been decorated with pigs in mind. I understand the entire neighborhood is aware of the pigs and no one, including the city officials, object to the pigs' presence.

As if caring for two pigs isn't enough to keep the Christensens busy, they also have a dog and cat, and all the animals are allowed to roam freely about the house -- except for the master bedroom.

At one point in our tour of the backyard, Chris stopped and laid down alongside Brix, the larger of his two pigs, as he gently massaged its belly for several minutes while the pig was sleeping. And I could sense the genuine bonding between those two beings.

Brix weighed approximately 300 pounds four months ago when he was adopted from an animal shelter in Santa Cruz. Since that time, he has shed 50 pounds through controlled dieting, and Chris hopes to get him to lose an additional 50 pounds which should bring him close to his normal weight by year's end.

Mason, whom the Christensens rescued from the Martinez shelter three years ago, is believed to be fully grown although his exact age is unknown. He's a lithe 100 pounds and loves to move about and squeak like a newborn.

Chris says there haven't been a lot of technical books published on potbellied pigs; and what he and Marcie have learned about them has mainly been through trial and error and sharing information with other potbellied pig owners.

Anyone wishing to learn more about potbellied pigs is welcome to contact Marcie or Chris Christensen at CPPA4Pigs.org.

As a post script, the recently concluded Furry Pet Faire and Maddie's Adoption Day in Concord was a success and resulted in the placement of 56 animals in a lot of happy homes.

I've also been told there are still more animals available, especially for folks seeking permanent companions that rarely make demands except to be fed and loved.

Contact Eizo Kobayashi at transcript@bayareanewsgroup.com.