Bred and abandoned–– but now there’s hope for potbellied pigs! (and they even have mud to root in)

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, November 1992:

The headlines tell the story:
October 1, 1991, St. Louis Post-Dispatch––
‘Super Pig’ Credited With Saving
Banking Executive, Wife In Fire
October 30, 1991, The Daily Oklahoman––
Council Advised To Keep Pig Law
December 4, 1991, Detroit Free Press––
Pet Pig Prompts Court Confrontation
June 7, 1992, The New York Times––
This Little Pig’s Market Plunged
June 30, 1992, Los Angeles Times––
Pet Potbellied Pig Craze Goes Belly Up

It all happened so fast. In the late 1980s the
Vietnamese potbellied pig was everyone’s darling, inten-
sively publicized as the perfect exotic (and some said
erotic) pet––affectionate, unusual, intelligent, trainable,
surprisingly clean, and even at times heroic. Potbellied
pigs were hailed as one of the only good things to come
out of the Vietnam War; were written up in People, The
National Enquirer, and Life; were taken to pricy restau-
rants by rock-and-roll stars. Breeders who actually had
pigs for sale reported getting up to 100 telephone calls a
week from people wanting them.
Only price, the breeders claimed, was keeping
them out of millions of middle-American homes. Once
enough potbellied pigs were bred to satisfy the breeders’
own demand, they predicted, the price would drop, and
soon there would be at least one pig alongside the cat and
dog on every living room rug. Speculation on breeding
pairs soared; some prize pet porcines fetched upward of
$10,000 in the trendiest parts of greater Los Angeles and
the New York metropolitan area.
The peak of both prices and public enthusiasm
was probably reached in mid-to-late-1991. The boom
was still on, but those cute little piglets of a year ago
were suddenly grown up and getting hard to handle.
Anticipating problems, having had experience with fad
pets before, city councils began passing anti-pig ordi-
nances, or enforcing old laws that barred keeping live-
stock within city limits. Some pig enthusiasts challenged
the restrictions in court. They usually lost. The pigs had
to go. Other pig-keepers, tired of the unexpectedly diffi-
cult animals, simply knuckled under and relievedly
dropped their pigs off at the local animal shelter––where
staffers, already overburdened with dog and cat over-
population, found themselves swamped in swine they
knew nothing about. Few shelters have either the facili-
ties or the experience to properly cope with a rutting,
rooting young pig’s needs. And even if all the suddenly
unwanted pigs were to be euthanized, just how does one
give a pig a lethal injection, anyway, through that tough
skin, and how much of the solution does an animal that
heavy need?
The price of potbellied pigs did drop, all right,
from the range of a year-old car to that of a clunker in
less than a year. Nor did it bottom out there. By mid-
1992 they not only couldn’t be sold; they couldn’t be
given away in many parts of the country. Some potbel-
lies were actually sold for slaughter.
Conceiving PIGS
Credit Dale Riffle and Jim Brewer with a com-
bination of prescience and perhaps foolhardy courage.
On December 23, 1991, as the potbellied pig bust was
just barely beginning, Brewer predicted to the ANIMAL
PEOPLE editors that, “Potbellied pigs are going to be
the throwaway pet of the 90s. These animals are person-
able, intelligent, incredibly sensitive and loving, but
they are a lot of work, and this is the main fact that isn’t
being advertised.”
Riffle and Brewer had already rescued their first
potbellied pig, from “college kids,” Brewer said, who
had no idea what to do with him, or how, or why. “We
weathered through a lot of problems with Rufus when he
was a baby,” Brewer continued, “i.e., eating drywall,
urinating in front of his litter pan instead of in it, aggres-
sive behavior toward our dogs.” From that experience,
they knew both the rewards and the difficulty of working
with a young potbellied pig; they knew most people who
had acquired them wouldn’t want to put up with all the
effort for long; and they knew that somebody, some-
where, had better get a sanctuary started to serve the
ever-growing number of abandonees.
Within another few months, Riffle and Brewer
would commit their lives to forming the Potbellied pig
Interest Group & Shelter, PIGS for short. It involved
major lifestyle changes: leaving close proximity to their
jobs, selling property, taking big financial and personal
risks to get a place in the country suitable for pigs––and
they didn’t exactly get a lot of encouragement, either,
from some of the people and organizations they had
hoped would be most helpful and responsive.
“We had hoped to work with other animal
groups,” Brewer explained to ANIMAL PEOPLE,
“but the only groups taking us seriously are the owners,
breeders, and producers. Not all of them, of course.”
They decided to go ahead with whatever they
could do by themselves, because, “To be quite honest,
Brewer continued, “we don’t have two years to wait for
the animal groups to give us the time of day. There are
pigs out there in bad situations and we have to do some-
thing today. From an animal rights perspective, we feel
we are on our own. We have never done anything like
this before, we had no idea how to go about it, but it
needed to be done, we were committed to doing it, and
we jumped in to do it––and we found the breeders, own-
ers, and promoters willing to work with us in helping
homeless, abandoned, abused pigs, whereas the animal
rights and animal welfare groups seem to be content
waiting for us to prove to them that we are not a mysteri-
ous cult. Dale and I thought we would be welcomed as a
new addition to the animal movement. We have grown
up very quickly,” Brewer note––especially after Riffle
approached PETA for advice on incorporation and
instead got “the third degree.”
But there was some help available. “A friend of
ours, Peggy Couey, a former breeder of potbellied pigs
who quit because of what is happening to them, knew
we were struggling and wrote us a letter. In her letter she
said, ‘you are there to take care of the wounded after the
men are through playing their macho games.'” The
moral support helped, but Couey didn’t stop at that. She
also donated a pair of large pighouses, 100 pounds of
food, and a big tin of pig vitamins.
“We cannot and will not alienate her just
because she used to breed these animals,” Brewer went
on, explaining that PIGS eschews the ideological in
favor of the practical, as a matter of getting the most
possible compassionate work done. “We are not out to
do battle with the breeders,” many of whom lost
immense amounts of money in naive expectation that a
genuine mass market for pet pigs would develop.
Rather, Brewer emphasized, “We are out to offer sanc-
tuary to homeless pigs, to make their lives a little bet-
The major potbellied pig registries all backed
the PIGS startup with encouraging publicity. Among
those Riffle singles out for thanks arethe Pot Belly Pig
Registry Service of Indiana, the Gold Star International
Registry of California, the Pot Belly Pig Registry
Service newsletter, and Potbellied Pig Journal.
Publicity in mainstream media followed. Even before
their incorporation procedures are complete, they’ve
found themselves the senior experts on potbellied pig
rescue and rehabilitation, by default. The telephone
rings frequently, even though PIGS has yet to do any
mailings or other conventional publicity work.
“We’ve talked with people in New York and
New Jersey,” Brewer ruminated in a relatively quiet
moment. “Utah, Colorado, Ohio––there a woman had a
pig she was going to use as a stud, and he was driving
her crazy. We convinced her to have him neutered
instead of breeding. She did, thank God. We’ve talked
with a man in Washington state who is placing aban-
doned pigs in that area. Just before he called us, he had
talked to a woman in Arkansas who had just discovered a
herd of 80 pigs with mange. They were being fed dog
food. Yesterday we received a call from Long Island and
a call from Savannah, Georgia. The Savannah call was a
woman telling us about a pig in a shelter in the Roanoke,
Virginia area. Dale is calling around today to see if he
can find anything out.”
Riffle and Brewer estimate that they have the
resources to accomodate about 40 pigs eventually, but
they’re not in a rush to fill all the available places.
Knowing there won’t be any slackening of need for a pot-
bellied pig sanctuary in the forseeable future, they try
first to help people deal with their pig problems and keep
their pigs at home. Potbellied pigs come to PIGS as a last
Still, they are coming. “Right now we have 10
pigs,” Riffle explained at the ANIMAL PEOPLE dead-
line. “Of the ten, only one is actually from this state
(West Virginia). We have a mix between a potbellied pig
and a regular domestic pig that was rescued from a
slaughter line on Long Island. He lived with a veterinari-
an for six months, Dr. Andrea Fochios. Farm Sanctuary
wouldn’t take him––they only have the big thousand-
pounders there, and pigs are aggressive to one another
sometimes. He’d have been killed. Finally Dr. Fochios
found out about us. We said we’d take him if she could
get him here, so she drove the pig down. It took her
seven hours each way.
“We have another pig here from Woodbridge,
Virginia. She belonged to a family who put their house
up for sale, and it sold a lot faster than they’d realized it
would, so they wound up taking their baby and going to
live with their in-laws, and of course there was no place
for the pig. They didn’t want to surrender her, so we
made a special arrangement, since they obviously did
want the pig. The deal is, they can re-adopt her at any
time for up to 10 months. After that, she’s ours, and
we’ll have to adopt her out to anyone who wants her and
can take good care of her.
“We have two pigs from a breeder in Pottstown,
Pennsylvania,” Riffle went on, ticking them off. She
couldn’t sell them even at $100. They’re a brother and
sister, and we’ll try to adopt them out as a pair, since
pigs do have a strong sense of family when they’re
allowed the chance to develop one. “There’s Wilie, a pig
from Morgantown. We got him because when he
reached sexual maturity, he quit using his litter pan.
There’s Missy, a little white pig. She’s five months old
and definitely a runt. She’s only eight inches tall and
weighs maybe 15 pounds. Willie, who’s the same age,
is three times her size. I refer to her as the piranha,”
Riffle laughed. “We couldn’t touch her for three weeks.
She’s a major biter. Fortunately she still has her baby
teeth. Now I can reach down and scratch her, and she’s
getting used to us.”
Missy came to PIGS from Philadelphia, where
she lived with “two disabled people who treated her like
a princess. But they couldn’t keep her. They called us,
and we said we’d take her, but we couldn’t take the time
off to go and get her, so these two guys, Michael and
Craig, volunteered to be a pig-taxi. They drove the nine-
hour round trip to Philadelphia and got her,” just one
example among many of the support Riffle and Brewer
have discovered among people who maybe don’t think of
themselves as “animal people” but do somehow appreci-
ate what what it’s all about.
Finally, there’s Daisy Mae. “She lived in a
townhouse and had only an eight-by-ten-foot concrete
slab to run around on,” Riffle explained. “She didn’t
have any grass, and so she didn’t get to root. Rooting is
very important for a pig, not just to satisfy their instincts,
but also because they pick up a lot of minerals they need
from the soil that way. She doesn’t walk right, and we
don’t know if it’s because her feet or legs didn’t develop
properly while she was on the concrete, or bec ause of
something else, like a genetic or nutritional factor. Her
owners loved her to death, but she bit a three-year-old
kid. The kid went over into her territory, so she ran over
and bit him, and ran back to her place, but that was it.
Her people felt they couldn’t take the risk of keeping
Pig bites are a worry; pigs have powerful jaws,
and can deliver a bite comparable to that of a pit bull ter-
rier if provoked. The biggest worry for Riffle and
Brewer, however, isn’t what any of the pigs are going to
do; it’s how people will react. The PIGS sanctuary is
located within the Mid-Atlantic raccoon rabies pandemic
area, and because the pigs spend most of their time out-
doors, living as pigs were meant to, there is the outside
chance they will encounter a rabid wild animal. As yet,
there isn’t an approved rabies vaccination for pigs, of
any size. This doesn’t mean the Imrab vaccine used to
immunize dogs, cattle, horses, and sheep won’t work;
it just means that because most pigs are kept in confine-
ment barns these days, the Imrab makers have never
seen reason to spend $100,000 on testing to prove it
works on pigs, too. “We’re definitely looking into get-
ting all the pigs the canine vaccination,” Riffle said.
“We don’t like a case like one we heard about in Utah.
There, a pig nipped a woman. All the pigs at the loca-
tion were confiscated by the state agriculture department.
They cut their heads off to test them for rabies, and they
all tested negative, but the pigs were dead.”
Is there a doctor in the house?
Getting good medical advice was one big reason
why Riffle and Brewer decided early on to work with
breeders––even though every male pig they get is fixed
as promptly as possible, and the females are fixed as
soon as they can find a qualified veterinarian who’s will-
ing to attempt the surgery. That’s no easy matter, as
apparently only a few dozen veterinarians in the whole
U.S. have operated on enough pigs to have any idea how
much anesthesia to use and how it lasts. For that matter,
few veterinarians––or potbellied pig owners––even guess
within 50% of the actual weight of the pigs. “When I
talk to regular agricultural veterinarians and ask them if
they know how to spay a pig, they look at me as if I’m
crazy,” Riffle says. “Who’d want to spay a pig? From
their point of view, it makes no sense.”
One veterinarian in California has spayed
approximately 100 pigs, and is willing to talk other vet-
erinarians through the procedure by telephone. That’s
the best arrangement PIGS has discovered yet. But it’s
pricy: upward of $300 per spay, and that’s not even
counting the telephone bill.
Linking up with the breeders’ network proved to
be a matter of necessity, but in the beginning, “Dale and
I struggled long and hard about our decision to work
with them,” Brewer admits. As with dog and cat over-
population, they saw breeders as a big part of the prob-
lem. “We finally decided we had to work with
them––we need the health information they can provide.
It isn’t available anywhere else.”
Becoming part of the informal breeders’ net-
work has further advantages, Riffle and Brewer have
found, in that even as the PIGS sanctuary remains
obscure or unknown among most of the mainstream ani-
mal protection community, “we will at least be known
by the owners, breeders, and promoters of these animals
who know where the animals they bred are and what is
going on with them.” Many breeders, Brewer empha-
sized to ANIMAL PEOPLE, “recognize that problems
are cropping up, and they are willing to help us help as
many animals as possible.”
Where living like pigs is good
Riffle and Brewer anticipate adding facilities to
their newly acquired sanctuary eventually; right now it’s
little more than a former farm, converted to a different
use. “We’re still living out of boxes,” Riffle laughed.
“The pigs come first.”
Which is how Riffle and Brewer have gotten to
be pig experts in a hurry. They literally live among pigs,
making the most of observation. “Most of these pigs
were the centers of attention where they came from,”
Riffle said. “We can’t give them that kind of attention.
We’re too busy, and there are too many pigs. But we do
have to be very sensitive to the signs of stress. Pigs get
stressed out quite easily, and when they do, they can get
pnuemonia just like that and die. It’s very quick. They
can be stressed out by being in a new place, by being
transported, or by being in in an enclosure with the
wrong pig. And different pigs always need different
things. We had one, Andrew, who always hissed at us.
We finally figured out that he needed more fiber than the
others in his diet. We started adding a cup of whole oats
to his regular rations and it changed his whole personali-
ty. Other pigs, the oats doesn’t affect.”
There are various other animals at the PIGS
sanctuary who also play a part––the usual companions,
and a flock of chickens, too, whose special task is
scratching apart the manure pile to pick out undigested
oats. In the process, they help it to break down into soil
faster. “We have the greenest grass in West Virgnia,”
Riffle claims.
Mainly, though, the work gets down by the
same two guys who started the place, who pay the bills,
deal with the red tape, and make the repairs.
What keeps them going? “I don’t know if you
know anything about pigs,” Brewer concluded after
some thought, “but they have uncanny eyes. Very simi-
lar to humans. In Rufus’ eyes you can see love and grati-
tude and trust. So on those days when we wake up and
wonder, why are we doing this?, we think about Rufus,
and his eyes, other pigs in similar situations, and we
keep going. We both believe what the pigs give us is far
greater than anything we’ll ever be able to give them.”
(PIGS is located at R.R. #1, Box 317-X, Charlestown,
West Virginia 25414; 304-725-PIGS.)
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