I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about pot bellied pigs. I really don’t. I know people keep them as pets. I’m pretty sure most people don’t eat them. I know they’re not raised on factory farms. What I didn’t know is that they have many of the same issues dogs and cats do in our disposable society. Recently my friend Linda suggested that we take a trip down to southern Arizona and visit the Ironwood Pig Sanctuary, a 70-acre place that houses 600+ pot bellied pigs! This little trip opened my heart and my mind to the nature of these adorable animals as well as the struggles they face.
I’ll start by introducing you to Ellie. Who says you can’t play favorites? Ellie was mine. This adorable black pig was so friendly she came up to me just like my dogs do and sniffed me all over. She loved it when I scratched her rough head and around her one ear. Yep, only one ear. Why? Because she was attacked by dogs and nearly didn’t survive. She lost her ear but gained a huge affection for people since she received care many hours a day. Not all the pigs at Ironwood have experienced such troubled pasts. Most were bought as young piglets and once they reached 100, 200, 300+ pounds their owners did not want to care for them anymore. Just like puppies. Cute as can be when they’re little … aren’t we all? But then they grow up.
What are pot bellied pigs like?
I was amazed that these pot bellied pigs could reach 300 pounds. Reason being that people breed true pot bellies with all kinds of other pigs. True pot bellies I think typically stay pretty small (i.e. 100 pounds). The majority of the pigs at Ironwood are on the bigger side. One looks like a giant sharpei! They snort, grunt, love to eat, and generally seem interested in people. Some let us pet them while others were more skiddish. Their bellies are so big they hang to the ground. Being that I’m 8 months pregnant, I can’t imagine how that feels! They must have back aches worse than mine right now!
Pot bellied pigs are of the same species as wild pigs and farm-raised pigs. This means they can interbreed … which is how these hybrid versions have come to be. While you might think that a pot bellied pig would be a good housemate to dogs, they aren’t. Dogs are predators and pigs are prey. So despite their large size, pigs easily end up on the loosing side of an attack by dogs. As omnivores, they eat pig chow, vegetables and fruits. They need living accommodations that allow them to be outside in the dirt. They get vital nutrients from rooting in the soil and would not be happy if they were kept in a house at all times.
Why are they at this sanctuary?
Just like the dogs I deal with all the time in companion animal rescue, these pot bellied pigs are homeless because they’ve been cast off by their owners. Some times people move and don’t take their pigs with them. Other times the pigs become “inconvenient” for the owner’s lifestyle; either they’ve grown too big or they require more care than the owner wants to deal with. Pot bellied pigs are also victims of abuse and neglect, which is tragically sad. In fact our wonderful tour guide at Ironwood said they are very stringent about who can adopt pigs from the sanctuary because even adopters with good intentions in the beginning tend to neglect the pigs needs over time.
Why eat one but not the other?
This question plagued my mind as I toured this sanctuary with dozens of other people especially as we stopped to visit with a group of full-size pigs that were rescued as piglets from a farmer who abandoned them. I find it highly unlikely that the majority of visitors were vegan. I could be wrong here but judging by the amount of vegans in mainstream society, I think I’m probably right. Yet almost everybody was expressing how cute they thought these pot bellied pigs were.
So why do people eat pigs raised as farm animals but not pot bellied pigs which they consider to be companion animals? The two types of pigs are part of the same species. They have nearly identical needs when it comes to their food, environment, and emotional well being. And yet pot bellies are most often kept as pets while standard pigs are tortured, confined, deprived of their needs, and horrendously slaughtered for human food. This inability for people to make the connection between two pigs, which essentially differ only in size, baffles me.
I was so happy to find that all of the staff members at Ironwood are vegetarians and I was pleasantly surprised to see their refreshment table contained only vegetarian (and several vegan) treats for the human sanctuary guests.
How can we help?
Imagine the task at hand for the four people who maintain Ironwood Pig Sanctuary. Yes, only four people manage to care for 600+ pigs every day. The sanctuary is funded primarily by donations. So if you can find it in your heart to help some pigs, here are my suggestions:
Together we can help make a difference for these adorable animals.