Suppose your pet ate your couch, attacked the baby sitter, and excavated the kitchen floor; suppose you were duped into spending thousands on what you thought would be a 40-pound, docile, house-trained, sweet, affectionate—not to mention trendy—minipig, but wound up with a 200-pound vicious attack swine, armed with razor-sharp tusks and one serious attitude problem.
Suppose you are Donna Rice.
For almost three years, a Vietnamese pot-bellied pig that was supposed to help console Rice after her mother’s death instead controlled her life and destroyed her Gaithersburg house. Allergic to cats and dogs, Rice (who does not know former Sen. Gary Hart) read with interest the newspaper and magazine articles that claimed these strange little pigs were hypoallergenic and made delightful, intelligent pets. In 1990, Rice, her father, husband, and sons went to a breeder who sold pot-bellies, ocelots, and other assorted “exotic” pets, forked over $950, and picked a cute, 15-pound, male piglet.
Rice asked the breeder how big the pig would get, but on this point he was cagey. “He actually said, “Do you know how big your son will get?’ But the literature said 40 pounds, and I guess I wanted to believe it,” says Rice.
For the first year, Ziffel, named for Green Acres pig Arnold Ziffel, lived a country-club life worthy of any Gabor sister. He nested in soft blankets, was fed scrumptious treats, and, thanks to a handmade “piggie door,” enjoyed 24-hour access to the Rices’ big back yard and swimming pool.
The good life, however, turned Ziffel into a spoiled brat. Ziffel would only go out if bribed with Doritos or Teddy Grahams, and if the pig couldn’t be tempted to venture outdoors, he’d shit all over the house. Though pigs, who can’t sweat, wallow in mud and water to cool themselves, Ziffel developed an aversion to water, and would amble out in the rain only if Rice covered him with an umbrella. By the time he was two years old, Ziffel weighed 200 pounds, had sprouted 2-inch tined tusks, and charged guests and Rice’s better half on a regular basis. “They had some kind of male dominance thing going,” says Rice. Her husband suggested they find the pig another residence. Rice resisted. “[My husband] said, “I don’t want to be afraid of an animal in my home,’ but Ziffel hadn’t come after me or my sons yet. I was still his mother.”
Still, Ziffel would have tested the love of any mother. He dug up the yard and destroyed the bathroom. He gnawed on the couch, on the wicker chairs, and on the walls. “He tore up the kitchen floor and ate it like fruit roll-ups,” says Rice. “He was just not meant to be a house pet. We were bamboozled.”
As he matured from adolescence into adulthood, Ziffel, like most teen-agers, began to challenge his mom. “One day I was bending over in my robe, and he made cross-hairs on my butt. He charged, and I flew through the air, my robe flying open. I wish I had it on video,” muses Rice. “He started to bite. He started to attack my dad’s shoes—maybe they were pigskin. My aunt was afraid to go down into the family room, and I began to wonder when he would turn on my sons.”
Rice was at her wit’s end. She was seriously contemplating having Ziffel put down when she heard about PIGS: A Sanctuary, a five-acre farm in the rolling foothills near Harper’s Ferry, W.Va. that takes in abused and unruly swine. The pigpen of last resort.
“We begged them to take Ziffel,” says Rice. “We pulled up in our van, my husband rolled out the wooden staircase he had built to get Ziffel in and out of the car. It was raining, so I was standing over Ziffel with my umbrella, shaking a bag of Doritos in front of his snout. When he got to the end of the ramp, he wouldn’t step in the mud, so I put down a little carpet for him. The guys at the sanctuary just stood by, shaking their heads, thinking we were nuts.”
On any given day, about 160 pigs reside at the sanctuary. Most of them are Vietnamese pot-bellied pigs, though a few massive domestic hogs, some half-breeds, and one giant, ferocious European wild boar passed off to a blind woman as the perfect pet also call the sanctuary home. So do six dogs, seven cats, two rabbits, three goats, one sheep, two dozen chickens, and three turkeys.
And two humans, Dale Riffle and Jim Brewer.
While Boys Town founder Father Flanagan is beatified for saving orphans, most people find Dale and Jim’s mission to provide a haven for unwanted and unmanageable Vietnamese pot-bellies a little crazy. All day, every day, Dale and Jim clean up after pigs. All day, every day, Dale and Jim walk behind humanity with a dustpan and broom, cleaning up a mess caused by human arrogance.
Exotic-pet breeders, pet store owners, and lifestyle magazine writers transformed a wild Asian animal into a high-priced, chi-chi American pet. Vietnamese pot-bellied pigs were systematically beaten, starved, and inbred to make them small and gentle pets, but the pigs stayed true to their nature. All over America, people like Donna Rice who thought they were buying 40-pound docile house pigs are jettisoning bellicose swine four times that size.
The lucky ones—like Ziffel—end up at Pigstown.
To market, to market, to buy a fat pig,
Home again, home again, jiggety-jig
Before nouveau cuisine, before the great potato famine, before Italians cooked with tomatoes, and before someone discovered that yeast makes dough rise, humans were eating pigs. More than 10,000 years ago, artists recorded wild boar hunts on cave walls in France. To ensure a steady supply of pork, the Chinese corralled Sus indica, a small Asiatic species of boar, around 3000 B.C.; Europeans domesticated Sus scrofa 1,500 years later. Columbus transported farm swine to the New World on his second voyage, though some Indian tribes had long dined on the peccary, a boar-like animal native to the Americas. Despite the teachings of vegetarians, Jews, and Muslims, humans the world over have acquired a taste for pork. We eat bacon and ham, pork chops and Moo Shu pork, pigs’ feet, and even, god help us, Spam.
The pig has always been an object of caloric consumption, but 10 years ago, one breed of pig—the Vietnamese pot-belly—became an object of conspicuous consumption.
Descendants of Sus indica, pot-bellies originated in Vietnam, where semiwild herds lived near villagers who fattened them for slaughter. By the early ’70s, decades of war and famine had decimated the native population, but the pigs were a popular attraction at European zoos and petting farms. There, Canadian exotic pet breeder Keith Connell first recognized the pigs’ profit potential. In 1985, he bought 18 pigs from a Swedish zoo, and the Department of Agriculture gave him the green light to import them into the U.S.
Black, with small ears, a long snout, bristly hair, swayed backs, and a distinctive paunch, the original Connell pot-bellied pigs topped out at about 200 pounds—downright petite compared with common farm swine, which can tip the scales at 1,500 pounds. During the mid-’80s, Connell distributed offspring of his pot-bellies to select breeders, who sold the pigs complete with birth certificates modeled after those that accompanied Cabbage Patch Kids. In 1988, those certificates became the Potbellied Pig Registry. The registry has tracked the blood lines of 23,000 pigs, though Jim and Dale estimate that 1 million pot-bellies now live in the U.S.
Pot-bellies, or “yuppie puppies” as they were dubbed, quickly became the pet célèbre of the late ’80s and early ’90s. Former Go-Go Belinda Carlisle bought one; so did C. Boyden Gray, President Bush’s White House counsel. Even ordinary mortals paid hundreds, thousands, even tens of thousands of dollars for a piglet. Breeders, because they didn’t know any better or because they knew their market all too well, told customers what they wanted to hear: that the pigs could be quickly housebroken, that they didn’t affect people with allergies, that they were sweet and kind, and—most important—that they would stay small.
Here an Oink, There an Oink, Everywhere an Oink, Oink
It’s easy to look after you and yours, to quietly accumulate wealth and possessions, to mind your own business and nobody else’s. What motivates people to house orphans and refugees, to treat lepers, to care for the sick and the poor? Often it’s moral conviction, sometimes it’s the need to be needed. More often than not, these qualities lie dormant until a chance encounter triggers a sympathetic response, and suddenly, there you are, ministering to a flock of swine.
For Dale and Jim, the inspiration to create a congregation of hogs began with just one pot-bellied pig—Rufus. In 1990, Dale was managing the mail-order catalog for Co-op America, which sells goods made by “environmental and socially responsible companies,” when a Co-op America intern purchased Rufus. Unfortunately, the piglet, the intern, and their six roommates found the living arrangements difficult. Dale offered to take Rufus in. At the time, Dale and Jim, who have been together for 16 years, were living near Annapolis in a house that overlooked the Chesapeake Bay.
Still small, Rufus would sleep in their arms, and like most pot-bellies, he loved to get his tummy rubbed. He never misbehaved until one day, as Jim and Dale were watching television, he waddled into the living room and began to urinate on the carpet. Jim screamed at the pig. Rufus buried his head in the sofa and wailed. But temporary remorse did not deter Rufus from further mischief. He rooted in the rugs, ate the drywall, and shat wherever he pleased.
To preserve their sanity and their furniture, Dale and Jim decided to billet Rufus outside. His behavior changed immediately: He dug in the dirt instead of the sofa, made a nest of grass instead of laundry. “He went from a dysfunctional pig to a happy pig, and we realized that these pigs were not meant to be indoor house pets, no matter what the breeders and pet stores say,” says Jim.
“We started wondering what was happening to other pigs like Rufus. Dale started making phone calls and we realized that many owners were experiencing similar problems with their pigs, and that most shelters wouldn’t take the animals. Not even to euthanize them. One day Dale said, “We have to help the pigs.’ That was that. We put our house on the market and sold it in January of 1992.”
Though Dale prompted it, the decision to give up their comfortable life on the bay was easier for Jim. “I grew up comfortable, and I never really cared about money. Dale came from a poor family, and giving up our possessions was difficult.” But, he adds, “Rufus made us realize that pigs have a right to a secure, sane life. If we cannot treat and provide for animals, we don’t have a chance to survive as a species ourselves.”
Jim, Dale, and Rufus moved out of their 2,500-square-foot waterfront house to a 30-foot rented camper in Charles Town, W.Va., while they looked for a permanent sanctuary: a house on land unrestricted by zoning regulations. By the time they bought a nearby farm six months later, Jim and Dale had adopted seven more pigs.
When the realtor took them to view the farm, all that existed was the one-story house, a large barn, and a chain-link fence. “We first went to the look at the barn. It was a Butler barn—heated, insulated, had its own electrical line, perfect for pigs,” says Dale. “I said, “We’ll take it.’ [The realtor] said “Don’t you want to look at the house?’ I said that if it had a shower that I can stand up in, that’s all I need.”
For the first couple of months, Jim and Dale awoke each morning at 4 a.m. and went outside to break ice in the water troughs and feed the pigs. By 6 a.m. they, too, had dined and were in the car beginning their two-hour commute to D.C. The herd grew and grew until it needed a full-time caretaker. So after a year, Dale quit his job. Jim, who works as legal secretary, still commutes by MARC into the city four days a week.
It’s as hard to tell Jim from Dale as it is to distinguish any two of their charges from each other. Both are white males of average height with thinning hair and close-cropped beards. At 42, Jim is nine years older than Dale, and his beard is daubed with white. Jim grew up in southeastern Ohio on a farm where his parents grew hogs for slaughter. Dale, too, grew up in southeastern Ohio, and worked on a different pig farm. Their differences are found in slight variations in tone, in emphasis. Dale is more sardonic, and a good deal more guarded than Jim. “Jim is very emotional. Some people think about things as they are saying them. And some people think about things before they say them,” says Dale.
While Jim toils in the city, Dale performs a labor that could only come from love. He rises at 4:30 and drives Jim to the train station. When Dale returns, he gives the animals their first of two daily meals, fills the plastic kiddie pools that serve as the pigs’ water troughs, and rakes up their waste. Dale dresses in cutoffs, a cap fashioned from a bandanna, and leather work boots—a practical choice of footwear, considering what he’s shoveling. His diligence on “poop patrol” pays off: The sanctuary isn’t permeated with the odor of mud and feces that most people associate with swine.
The sanctuary is a peaceable kingdom. The dogs, cats, chickens and a few of the pigs roam free. Elizabeth the sheep grazes between the cars of visitors. And most of the pigs live in the farm’s dozen corrals.
Good fences make good pigs. “Pigs have no sense of size. If you put a little wimp pig in with bigger, tougher pigs, it’ll attack them just the same,” says Dale. He and Jim have subdivided the land, grouping swine by size and disposition. Thirty-eight full-grown pot-bellies form the largest herd. There is also a herd of 1-to-2-year-old pot-bellies, a corral for overweight pigs, and a herd of pigs that haven’t reached 1 year of age. The domestic farm hogs are kept separate, as are new arrivals, crippled pigs, quarantined pigs, and not-yet-neutered pigs. All the pens emit a low buzz of grunts and snuffles, punctuated by a few territorial shrieks and wails.
Jim and Dale haven’t taken a vacation since they opened the sanctuary three years ago. When they’re not working on the farm or networking to place pigs, they are planning their annual Pigstock festival, sending supporters sob stories, soliciting donations. And when they’re not organizing and fund-raising? “The movies, we live for the movies,” says Jim. “We just went to see Gordy, you know, the story about the little pig?”
Have you seen the little piggies in their starched white shirts?
“Our motto is: “Where a pig can be a pig.’ Most pigs come here and they don’t know they are pigs—we have to teach them,” says Dale.
“We like to think we’re making a difference. One pig at a time,” adds Jim.
Spoiled by Doritos and blankets, waterbeds and excessive pampering, pot-bellies, like any pet, think they’re human or that the humans they live with are pigs.
For the first year, this porcine identity crisis doesn’t pose much of a problem. But pigs are territorial, hierarchical animals that are compelled to figure out their place in the herd’s pecking order by fighting hoof-and-tusk. And if your family is the surrogate herd, you’ve got trouble.Most pigs at the sanctuary are what Jim and Dale blithely call “aggressive house pigs.”
“When I picked out Peppy, he was so cute. He was the size of my hand,” says Jan Blumenthal of Wayne, Pa. “I was told that he wouldn’t grow more than 50 pounds, and that they make the most wonderful pets. He was wonderful [for] about a year, [until] I got pregnant with my second child. Maybe it was coincidence, but he started getting aggressive, head-butting my friends and chasing them around the furniture.”
The pig also fixated on certain objects: “Peppy was obsessed with silk,” says Blumenthal. “He ate all my silk dresses, all my silk hose. He went after people wearing silk.”
After Peppy bit the baby sitter, Blumenthal began to fear the pig. And when Peppy ate her sofa—“not part of the sofa, the whole thing, everything but the springs”—she took him to a trainer in the hopes of improving his disposition and diet. “The trainer claimed she would use something called the “X System’ to train him. But she just beat him. He came back with welts all over his back.”
Peppy’s behavior was typical of pot-bellies kept as house pets, says Dale. “They are territorial animals. When they get to be about a year old, instinct tells the pig to attack any new pigs, to figure out who’s boss. But there are no other pigs. So it starts attacking guests to your home: the mailman, your cousin, the paperboy. That’s when we get the first call.”
One of those calls was from Blumenthal. Dale and Jim told her to keep Peppy outside and to buy another pig so that the two swine could battle for dominance with each other. But she was afraid to get another pig. And though some “nice Amish people” built a wooden pig house, Peppy was not pleased at being relocated to the great outdoors. “He kept banging on the glass door for us to let him in,” Blumenthal recalls.
Once the baby was born, Peppy began to act very jealous. “He kept eyeing her, he didn’t want me to hold her,” says Blumenthal.
“The second time pig owners call is when the pig is about two years old, and it starts to try and figure out where it fits in the hierarchy of the herd by playing king of the mountain,” says Dale. In the wild, pigs will determine their place by biting and charging each other like rams. Denied bouts with other pigs, a pot-belly will challenge the people who raised it.
Peppy, now 140 pounds, decided to see who was on top of the Blumenthal mountain: him or the baby. “He went through the gate and tried to attack the baby—twice. I had to make a decision. The trainer told me Peppy was a loaded gun, waiting to go off.”
Once they brought Peppy to the sanctuary, the Blumenthals signed away all their rights to their pig, although they, like many owners, still occasionally visit their former pet.
Peppy was kept adjacent to his future herd for a few days to acclimate. Once put with other pigs, he fought his fights and took his place in the herd’s hierarchy. Peppy seems very happy, says Blumenthal, and perfectly docile, which still amazes her. “All the breeders—at least the ones we talked to—they all lied to us. They told us a pig would be the perfect house pet. Peppy was absolutely not a house pet. In another home, someone would have killed him. Nobody puts up with a pet who eats the sofa and puts holes in the walls.”
“All pigs are hysterical.”
At least once a week, Dale leads a tour comprised of true believers—People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) activists wearing “Meat Stinks” T-shirts—former and current pig owners, and a menagerie of reporters and photographers around the sanctuary. It takes a good two hours, for every pig has a name, and every pig has a tale of woe.
“Charlie Brown was the worst case of abuse,” Dale tells one recent tour group as he points out a big pig in the largest herd. “He was bought for $20. They fed him table scraps, and when the Humane Society took him away, he was so weak, he couldn’t lift his head.”
A collective “Ohhhhh,” goes up from the crowd.
“So we brought him here, put him in our kitchen, and hung an IV from the kitchen cabinet. Then he moved to baby food. He went from 43 pounds to 140 pounds.”
“Awww,” the crowd obliges.
And when Dale tells us that he named the pig Charlie Brown because he was like the scraggly Christmas tree that flourished with love, no one can suppress a happy smile.
Charlie Brown may have been a runt saved by hand-feeding, but rest assured there are not one, but four Wilburs at the sanctuary. It is also home to Breakfast, Moo Shu Pork, and Porkchop; Spooky, a silver-haired pig found running in a cemetery; and Stormy, who was born on the first day of Operation Desert Storm. “What can I say? Her owner was a Republican,” laughs Jim. Annabell performed in a San Francisco nightclub act before she broke her leg. Skimbaliza is stone deaf; and when Dale goes into the herd calling “Piiiig-piiig,” she doesn’t realize it’s feeding time till she sees him waving his hands above his head.
When Casey arrived at the sanctuary, his owner literally rolled out the red carpet for the pig, explaining, “He’s not a pig, he’s a prince.” Pinkie Lee came with a note saying that if her bath water was too warm, she’d poop in it, and that she preferred Mr. Bubble Ultra.
Gucci’s master was one of a group of owners and breeders trying to persuade Alexandria, Va., to exempt pot-bellies from a city regulation prohibiting swine. (At the turn of the century, “muckraking” journalists inspired progressive politicians to clean up disease- and filth-ridden tenements. Ever since, most cities have banned all swine.) As part of their campaign to persuade city fathers that pot-bellies are upscale pets, the breeder and Gucci arrived at the Alexandria courthouse in a limo, wearing tuxes. But Dale and Jim successfully lobbied the city not to repeal its swine law. The breeder’s house burned down soon after, leaving his animals out in the cold. Animal control seized the pigs, and when their time at the shelter ran out, the breeder beseeched his old adversaries to save Gucci and Sarsparilla, a pregnant sow.
Ruttie Tuttie, Kinda Fruttie is a retarded pig who staggers and falls like a drunkard. Jeffrey, a Mexican hairless pig, likes to put his head between your legs and shake it, putting your kneecaps (and other sensitive body parts) in jeopardy of being gouged by his tusks. Elvis was found running loose in Lebanon, Pa. Dale plans to give their vet a T-shirt that says “I neutered Elvis at the pig sanctuary.”
Four of the farm pigs—Comet, Cupid, Donner, and Rudolph—were once used by medical students to practice surgical techniques. (Pigs are called “horizontal humans” because their internal organs resemble ours.) Predictably, the PETA folks mutter indignantly at this story.
Sam Sam the Raisin Man “was found wandering in the woods, dehydrated and shriveled and gray. He looked like a raisin,” says Dale. Like other ailing pigs, Sam spent his recovery in the kitchen, where every day he would open the cabinets and pull all the pots and pans out onto the floor.
Jethro’s owners, who had kept him in a small dog carrier, fought for custody of the pig when they divorced. “When the judge found out how the pig had been living, he ruled that neither one of them was fit to keep the pig,” Dale says. Jethro’s neighbor, Maggie, was saved from a greased pig contest.
Penelope, the only “four-legged pig to ever be in the White House,” as Dale puts it, used to belong to C. Boyden Gray, who loved to walk his pig around the cobblestone streets of Georgetown. But as Gray was forced to spend more and more time on presidential affairs, his household staff had to take care of the pig. “I think they thought that the pig was lonely,” says Jim, “and they got together—the maid, the chauffeur, and the butler, I think—and said: “It’s us or the pig.’ ” Gray took the pig intervention in stride, and still visits Penelope.
When Pigs Fly
Heidi-Ho doesn’t fly, exactly. But for a paraplegic pig, she moves pretty goddamn fast.
While just a piglet, Heidi was presented as a Christmas gift. But she escaped from her new owners within 45 minutes. Once outside, she was immediately attacked by two dogs. Heidi eluded the hounds and went running through the streets of Brunswick, Md., squealing as loud as a pig can—an awesome 110 decibels, as loud as the Concorde on takeoff. Animal control officers spent two fruitless hours trying to catch Heidi. Finally, they took aim with a tranquilizer gun. The dart hit Heidi in the back, broke the L2 vertebrae, and paralyzed her from the top of her back down to her rear trotters. Heidi has no bladder control, and hauls her limp, twisted body around by her front legs.
Once she was brought to the sanctuary, the vet advised Jim and Dale to put Heidi down. They decided to wait in order to judge her quality of life. “For the first two days, she wouldn’t move. But on the third day, she was an entirely new pig. She decided she could do whatever she liked,” Dale recalls.
Heidi taught herself to hop down the deck’s three steps into the lot reserved for crippled pigs. Encouraged by her attempts at mobility, Jim and Dale recruited a supporter to fashion Heidi a rolling prosthesis. She rests on a three-wheeled platform padded with sheepskin pile (faux, of course); the middle of the platform is cut away so she won’t pee on herself. Velcro straps hold her in place while her front legs do all the work.
Heidi skates around the house and on the back porch. Once, she gained so much momentum that she launched off the porch.
Heidi is fiercely protective of her fellow cripple Phyllis Louise. “Wheezer,” as she’s known, was fed cat food and developed “porcine stress syndrome,” which manifested itself as a sort of piggie MS. Wheezer crouches on her back legs like a rabbit, but when she tries to use her front feet, she tips over.
The most prominent gimp pig is Porkchop, the sanctuary’s mascot. His owners smacked him on the back with a 2-by-4, which caused him to lose the use of his rear left leg. Most of the time he drags himself around, but he has learned that if he supports the bad leg by leaning against the fence, he can walk like any other pig.
“He’s also the only pig to have ever bitten a People magazine reporter,” Dale tells his tour. “He was sick, and I told her that if she saw foam around his mouth, she shouldn’t get near him, but she didn’t listen. She told the photographer to take a picture as she sat on the wall over there, got her notebook out, and pretended to interview Porkchop. And he didn’t like it, so he bit her on the ass.”
“All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”
For as long as humans have domesticated animals, they have bred them to enhance or minimize certain characteristics. Dogs, for instance, were engineered to perform a wide variety of tasks. Retrievers retrieve. Huskies haul. Terriers dig.
But in the past few centuries, pets have been bred less for skill than for appearance. Millions of animals languish in shelters; still, people would rather pay big bucks for a trendy exotic or purebred pet. Show judges and societies like the American Kennel Association push arbitrary aesthetic qualities, and breeders synthesize Überanimals, genetic variation be damned. So we’ve wound up with cross-eyed Burman cats, arthritic spaniels, asthmatic bulldogs, and neurotic Irish setters.
As cruel as inbreeding has been to dogs and cats, at least it has been a relatively slow process. Pot-bellies have only been in this country for a decade, yet during that time breeders have shamelessly tried to change their appearance to suit the market.
Keith Connell’s original pigs were black and weighed 150 pounds or more. Pursuing that elusive 40-pound pig, breeders crossed pot-bellies with a Swedish minipig. They got a black-and-white pig. Cross-breeding with other small pigs has produced “silvers,” “blues,” and “reds”—varieties that have prolonged the pot-belly trend. Breeders have changed the pigs’ colors, but have not been nearly as successful in diminishing the pigs’ stature. Small piglets still grow up to be big pigs.
Pigs are very intelligent. If industry magazines and Internet newsgroup postings are any indication, most of their owners are not.
Pot-bellied Pigs: A Journal for Owners and Breeders, for instance, is larded with the saccharine submissions of owners—usually written from the pig’s point-of-view—and pictures of pigs in costumes. The anthropomorphic articles are coupled with ads from breeders who claim they have “Registered Vietnamese Miniature Pot-Bellied Pigs—Make Great House Pets,” or “Micro minis under 15 lbs. at 1 year—Apartment size pig pets, a few 8-14 lb. available.”
An eight-pound pig is an impossibility. But don’t try telling that to many of the people who log onto AOL’s pot-belly pig chat line. One owner, alarmed at the rate her pot-bellied pig was growing, posted a message asking where she could find a real “miniature pig.” She was promptly chastised by wiser pot-belly owners: “A pot-bellied pig IS a miniature pig!” responded one. “That’s as small as you are going to get….If you want something the size of Chihuahua, please consider buying a Chihuahua, or a toy poodle, NOT a pig!” Another owner concurred, adding, “Get informed, sounds like you have talked to too many used car salespersons now selling pot-bellied pigs!!!!”
Reputable breeders advise people that they should buy a pig only if they have a lot of land and plan to keep their pet outside. Some breeders have even admitted to Jim that the pigs shouldn’t be pets at all.
But amateur breeders, lured by the four-digit sticker-prices pot-bellies once fetched, are much less responsible. Now that the market has fallen, “they will do anything to sell a pig,” says Jim. Fly-by-night breeders mate pigs incestuously, or deprive them of food to keep them small. Far easier, and far more common, is the practice of claiming that a pig is full-grown when it’s not. Savvy consumers may ask to see a piglet’s parents, but since a male pig can reproduce at eight weeks, and a female at three months, the parents may be years away from reaching their full girth.
Reputable breeders only breed their sows once a year. But since the gestation for a pot-belly is four months and the average litter is eight piglets, one sow can give birth to as many as 24 piglets a year. The profit margin for most breeders is low—non-pedigree pigs sell for $50 or less—so it pays to work in volume. “People think our estimate of 1 million pigs is high, but they don’t answer our phone,” says Jim. Increasingly, the sanctuary receives pigs abandoned in the woods or near highways. And Jim and Dale say they wouldn’t be surprised if packs of feral pot-bellied pigs roam the forests in Texas, California, and Florida, where there are a lot of marginal breeders and the weather is temperate.
Though pot-bellied pigs continue to be bred at rapid rates, their novelty has worn off. Exotic pet fanciers have moved on to other inappropriate pets. “It’s hedgehogs now, and African pygmy goats, and sugar gliders,” a kind of South American flying squirrel, says Jim. Soon those animals will need sanctuaries too, he notes, just like the ferrets, ostriches, and Angora rabbits before them.
“Edible: adj., good to eat, and wholesome to digest, as a worm to a toad, a toad to a snake, a snake to a pig, a pig to a man, and a man to a worm.”
Given the opportunity, pigs will pig out.
At the sanctuary, Jim and Dale limit the pot-bellies’ diet to a couple of cups of grain-based Purina Pig Chow each day, whatever grass the pigs can forage in their pens, and occasional treats like apples, cantaloupes, and carrots. It costs about $300 a year to feed each pig, $45,000 to feed the whole lot.
This diet is a dramatic change for some of the pigs. Given pigs’ reputation as big eaters, many pot-belly owners gorge their pets. “They want to see their pigs happy, Dale says, “and a pig is always happiest when it’s eating, so….”
Piglet came to the sanctuary weighing over 300 pounds. She had lived in a row house in Baltimore until her owner, who had fed her commercial hog grower, called Dale and said, “I want somebody to get this goddamn pig before it dies on my porch.” Last October, Piglet was so fat that she couldn’t walk. So fat that she just lay in a pile of blankets in the barn. So fat that rolls of fat flopped down over her eyes, blinding her. So fat that her belly didn’t just touch the ground, it lay off to the side. So fat that the vet gave her less than an even chance of surviving.
“We can’t just cut their diet in half, their metabolism would just slow down [and they might die of shock],” says Dale. “So we slowly cut down on their food, and make them exercise.”
Piglet had to lose some weight before she could even stand. But once she did, she was relegated to the sanctuary’s fat farm, otherwise known as the “Richard Simmons” herd. A couple of times a day, Dale places a snow shovel under the butt of each fat pig, and forces the animal to walk the perimeter of the pen. For the first few months of aerobics, Piglet would step on her own belly, her hoofs ripping flesh that Dale had to treat each night with antibiotics.
Some pigs do not survive their obesity, but so far Piglet’s diet and exercise regimen is working. In the seven months between my first two visits to the sanctuary, she shed 100 pounds. Like the others in the Richard Simmons herd, she is scarred by her experience: Huge bags of empty flesh drape her body.
On the other end of the scale is Valerie. The breeder told her owners that the pig should grow to between 30 and 40 pounds. To ensure that size, he advised withholding food. The owners obliged, giving Valerie only a quarter-cup of feed a day. “It’s the equivalent of taking a baby born to people who are 6 feet tall and starving it so it will only be 3 feet tall,” says Dale. “People don’t realize that you keep the pig small, but you also stunt their internal organs. We don’t expect Valerie to live a long life.”
Jim and Dale’s diet has been as drastically altered as their charges’. “One day, Dale was eating a ham sandwich,” says Jim, “and he looked down at Rufus, and saw the pig looking up at him.”
“I realized that the only difference between the ham on my plate and the ham on the floor was that one was very lucky,” Dale says.
“Well, the connection was so obvious, we haven’t eaten meat since,” says Jim. “We’re not completely vegan yet, but that’s our goal.”
For Dale, the hardest part of the new diet was giving up milk. “I was a big milk drinker, I love milk,” he sighs. For Jim, it was sacrificing leather. “I had a beautiful leather living room set—I gave it up when we moved out here. And leather pants. And a leather bomber jacket that was just looking good. It sounds drastic; a lot of people say it’s crazy. But it’s where your priorities are. We made a commitment,” he says.
A Pig Called Hope
If you have yet to evolve from carnivore to vegan, a meal of fresh pork hits the spot.
Especially if you are a starving dog.
When Prince George’s County Animal Control officers entered the home of Sharon Roper on Sept. 24, 1994, her three emaciated dogs had mauled a black pot-belly and were in the back yard chewing on the pig’s right ear.
Roper lived in Clinton. Her pig was dubbed Hope.
Hope was taken to the sanctuary soon after the attack. Nestled in a pile of blankets in the corner of the pot-belly hospital—once Dale and Jim’s dining room—she wailed like the stuck pig she was. Where once was an ear, a mush of blood and pulp remained. Gashes from the dogs’ teeth and claws ran down her back. One of her eyes was swollen shut and caked with pus.
She was surrounded by a collection of animal rights activists who had been summoned by fax, phone, and Internet. They had turned out in force because the county’s animal control division ruled that Hope be returned to Roper. “I told them, “This pig is not going back,’ ” says Dale. The animal rights activists rallied their troops, called reporters, and posted Hope’s status on AOL. Letters poured into newspapers all over the country. The county attorney’s office was so inundated with phone calls that it disconnected its lines for three days. A group of 20 demonstrators, mostly children, held a vigil outside the county courthouse, cradling stuffed pot-bellied pigs and waving signs that read “Keep Hope Alive.”
Roper bowed to public pressure and signed Hope over to the sanctuary, provided she never be given away.
Hope is old news now. At the sanctuary, the spotlight on any one pig quickly fades. There’s always a pig du jour.
One day, it’s six abandoned piglets. Three weeks later, homes have been found for most of the piglets, and everybody’s cooing over Petri, a little porker found running loose in Arlington. But Petri is quickly overshadowed by the six “New York” pigs—pigs that merited a couple of AP wire stories, five-borough news coverage, and mention in U.S. News & World Report.
Four were found running near an expressway in Queens. The following day, a woman called the cops because she heard weird noises in the woods behind her house. The police found the corpse of a pig killed by a passing car, a bunch of empty cages, and one cage that still contained an angry and frightened sow. “For some reason, the cops thought they could just open the cage and she’d just walk into the squad car. Well, of course this pig runs like hell,” laughs Dale. Animal control came and tranquilized the sow, and wrapped ropes around the pig to carry her to the car. All the pigs were taken to the Bronx animal shelter and kept in a pen in the “pit bull” room. After one pig died from stress, Jim and Dale managed to convince shelter workers to hang blankets around the pigs’ run so they wouldn’t have to see the snarling pit bulls’ fangs.
The female, Sherry, was pregnant. After she and three surviving males were brought to the sanctuary, Sherry went into labor. But labor stopped suddenly. “That means the piglets are dead,” says Dale. “We don’t know why they died—maybe stress, the tranquilizer, or because they wrapped ropes around her belly. She’s going under tomorrow to have them removed because she hasn’t passed them yet.”
“My solitude grew more and more obese, like a pig.”
Across the yard, facing the house, is a big composting pile culled from the daily poop patrols; squash grow atop it. Between the pile and the yard is a small fountain, surrounded by placards bearing the names of fallen pigs and other deceased animals.Zachariah, an obese pig killed by a heart attack, is memorialized there. So is Pisshead, a cantankerous cat; Alex, a basset hound who died of liver failure; and some 20 other critters.
Dale takes a deep draw from his menthol cigarette as he stands on the back porch observing the crippled pigs. “When we told people at other sanctuaries that we wanted to start one, they warned us that it would be our favorites who would die. It’s true. I wasn’t prepared for how hard it would be. I’ve had pigs die in my arms. We watch them come in, and we watch them go out. But it’s gotten to the point where I can console myself with the fact that when one dies, we have an opening for another pig. A pig that otherwise might have to be put down.”
Every time Dale went to the animal shelter, he came home with another beast doomed to euthanization. After Dale saved Norma Jean, a rambunctious, wiry-haired puppy with floppy ears, Jim forbade him to visit the shelter anymore. Dale went on a speaking engagement and came back with Jezebel, a pig found running through the streets of Atlanta. No more speaking engagements. Dale heard about exotic birds overrunning Florida shelters, and pleaded with Jim to make an exception. “I said we’ll take two, but no more,” laughs Jim, who is afraid of parrots. Fortunately, he says, all the birds were placed.
“I’m more pig-specific,” says Jim. Surrounded by them in his youth, Jim “always loved pigs. Long before this, I collected pig memorabilia.” Lately, his inamimate collection has swelled with the gifts of supporters. There are pig potholders, soap dispensers, oven mitts, stuffed animals, hand-blown glass Christmas ornaments, clocks, cookie jars, refrigerator magnets, piggy banks, illustrations, sculptures, and photo albums.
And slowly but surely, the real pigs have taken over the house. Sick pigs recover in the kitchen, where they have gnawed the floor and the walls. When Dr. Pat Masters, the sanctuary’s vet, comes to neuter a pig, the surgery is conducted on the dining room table, though a recent grant will allow Jim and Dale to replace the plastic table with a stainless-steel gurney more suited to the task.
There are interns now, Heidi Beck and her husband “Spider,” and more on the way. Jim and Dale plan to bunk their helpers in the house, and move into the big barn. Insulated and wired for electric heat, the barn is perfect for pigs, and it’ll do just fine for Jim and Dale. They’ll build a loft apartment above the pig stalls and sleep among the swine.
As George Orwell wrote in Animal Farm: “The creatures outside looked from pig to man and man to pig and from pig to man again; but it was already impossible to say which was which.”