Vince Baran is living his dream, and his wife, Alicen, is along for the ride. Fueling it, in part, is the Buffalo Grove couple’s personable pet pig Norbert, whose skateboarding prowess has made him something of a social media sensation.
Norbert’s exploits have attracted the attention of local TV stations, wire services, TikTok viewers and Instagram users. The celebrity swine has more than 6,000 Instagram followers.
Everybody loves Norbert, a muscular, 150-pound spotted Juliana pig whose antics and intelligence put smiles on the faces of young and old alike. Neighbors bring him apples. Children from the local day care visit him on their walks. An elementary school invited him for a visit.
“At the end of the day I’m thrilled to talk about him, about what he can do, his intelligence and what he brings to our lives,” said Vince Baran, a lifelong animal lover who had wanted a pig since he was a little boy.
When he was 11, the Prairie View native and his family took a trip to Dollywood in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. While they were there, they visited The Comedy Barn, where an impressionable young Baran watched a pig named Arnold perform tricks.
“I was enamored,” he said. “I talked about it all the way home.”
He wrote to Arnold. The pig’s handlers responded several weeks later with photos, and Baran was hooked. But while his parents agreed to adopt dogs, hamsters and guinea pigs, they vetoed his request for a pig.
Years later, after marrying fellow animal lover Alicen and adopting bunny Moo and dog Oliver, Baran renewed his request. Alicen agreed. The couple adopted their first pig, Ralph, in January 2019.
On Dec. 23 of that year, Ralph died of a ruptured urethra. Norbert, who was born four days later, joined them on Super Bowl Sunday 2020.
Fully grown, Norbert is considered a miniature pig, a designation applied to pigs weighing less than 300 pounds. He knows basic commands: sit, stay, spin and give hoof, among others. And he taught himself to open cabinets, the refrigerator and the sliding door, prompting the couple to purchase baby locks.
Because pigs are among the smartest animals, it’s important to keep Norbert engaged and his mind active, Alicen Baran said.
“A bored pig is a destructive pig,” she said.
To that end, the couple supply him with a variety of toys, including his favorite stuffed octopus. But Norbert prefers the basics: a cardboard box filled with paper to shred, and fruits and vegetables to eat, an IKEA bag to dig around in and lie on, and a skateboard to ride.
A longtime skateboarding enthusiast, Vince Baran wondered if Norbert could master the sport. He trained Norbert about 30 minutes a day for a week, using treats as an incentive.
“And that’s how Norbert became the skateboarding pig,” he said.
Often when he leaves the skateboard in the backyard, Norbert will put his hoofs on it as if he’s ready, Baran said. “He looks to see if I’m watching and he’ll stand on it. That’s the signal he’s ready for a session.”
Baran acknowledges that Norbert’s behavior is likely an attempt to obtain treats. Which prompts the question: Who is training whom?
“You’re not wrong,” laughed Vince. “It’s unbelievable how smart this guy can be.”
“Vince is 100% trained by Norbert,” Alicen said. “If Vince opens a snack cabinet, he’s already sitting. (Norbert) knows if he sits Vince will give him a small treat.”
Vince taught Norbert to open a can of Liquid Death sparkling water (he punctured it with his teeth) in response to a social media challenge by the beverage company on the most ridiculous way to open a can. He’s also thinking about training Norbert to hold a paintbrush, to see if they can make an artist of him. (Fans can follow his progress on Instagram and TikTok at @HiMyNameisNorbert.)
Since Norbert joined the family, the house is rarely quiet and his penchant for cuddling doesn’t leave a lot of room on the couch. But Vince and Alicen wouldn’t change a thing.
Still, they caution would-be owners to carefully consider whether a pig would be a good addition to their family. As with any pet, potential owners must have the time, resources and money to devote to the animal.
Owning a pig is not for everyone, Alicen Baran said.
“They’re cute when they’re little, but they do get bigger,” she said. “It’s a 24/7/365 commitment.”
“People think it’s just like having a dog,” she said. “It’s not like having a dog.”
“We’ve had to adapt our lifestyle to his needs,” she said, “but he’s worth it.”