Unwanted pet pigs sent to hog haven

September 04, 1995|By Walter F. Naedele | Walter F. Naedele,Knight-Ridder News Service

The Vietnamese potbellied pig fad is now well into its second phase.

First phase: Buy the pig.

Second phase: Get rid of the pig.

And that has led to an increasing phenomenon -- "sanctuaries" for discarded potbellies.

There's one near the Lancaster County village of Landisville, Pa., that is home to about 60 pigs -- several from the Philadelphia region.

There's one in Charlestown, W.Va., with about 180 porkers. Those who know their porcine pets say there are at least 18 other hog safe houses elsewhere in the country.

"A lot of people have been told they make perfect house pets. Unfortunately . . . they haven't worked out in a lot of cases," said Kelly Harpster, who runs a sanctuary on her 12-acre farm near Landisville. "It's just a travesty, what's happening to them."

What's happening, Ms. Harpster and others say, is that unscrupulous breeders and pet-store owners are selling newborn pigs as placid pets without telling owners that they can tear up beds and couches and grow to more than 200 pounds in four years.

Some owners, Joseph Pulcinella said, are unknowingly "taking home [baby] potbellied pigs to apartments and ending up with a 200-pound boar with big tusks."

Mr. Pulcinella is manager of shelter operations at the Delaware County Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in Media.

"Four or five years ago, we didn't see them" at the shelter. Lately, he said, "we've been getting them in fairly regularly."

More this year than last year. More last year than the year before.

Discarded pigs are enough of a concern that the Delaware Valley Pot-Bellied Pig Association is holding a seminar on proper care of the animals, at the Bucks County Courthouse in Doylestown, Pa., Saturday.

"We're bringing in a trainer from Colorado, a breeder from Missouri, a pet owner from New Jersey, and a vet from Quakertown," said Susan Armstrong, head of the regional group.

Last year, Ms. Armstrong was president of the National Pot-Bellied Pig Association.

She runs a boarding home, not a sanctuary, for pigs on her 25-acre spread -- Ross Mill Farm & Piggy Camp -- in Jamison, south of Doylestown.

Ms. Armstrong said the pigs first appeared in this country at exotic-pet auctions in 1987, going for $3,500 each. Now, she said, a well- bred one goes for between $300 and $500.

Sanctuaries across the nation have been increasing, Ms. Armstrong said, but not because the pigs are incompatible as household pets.

"A lot of the unwanted population," she said, "is there out of frustration for not knowing how to care for the pig . . .

"I think sanctuaries are getting pigs that are bad boys," she said. "I think they see a lot of bad boys."

"Precious was my first rescue," Ms. Harpster said one morning last week, as she pushed open the gate to her Lancaster County barn, where the pig of that name lay in the shade.

"She came down the lane in a BMW. She had mange so bad . . ."

Ms. Harpster let the contrast hang in the air, between the high-priced car and the uncared-for skin disease.

"This little one," she said as a baby pig nuzzled a visitor's shoes, "I ran up to the Delaware County SPCA to pick her up last night."

Ms. Harpster has used her barn as a pig sanctuary for the last two years.

fTC One of the difficulties with pigs living in homes, she said, is "they're a herd animal. They start to think of humans as their herd."

And to challenge an owner, or a child, for dominance in the household.

"Five, six of these guys here have come from that situation," she said.

"They're wonderful animals," she said. "They've been exploited."

That view is shared by Dale Riffle, who since October 1992 has run a five-acre sanctuary near Harper's Ferry. "The biggest problem is aggression," Mr. Riffle said. "That's the No. 1 call we get.

"In the wild, pigs are herd animals. . . . When two meet, they fight, and fight viciously, to determine where each stands in the hierarchy."

Mr. Riffle said the whole pig-as-house-pet phenomenon was off-base. "I believe it's unfair to the animal to put it in a house," he said. "Their instincts are not built with the house in mind."

He recalled that a family from Center City Philadelphia "came home one day. Their mattress had a huge hole in the middle. A couple of weeks later, the couch had a huge hole in the middle."

Mr. Riffle said the pig simply had followed its rooting instinct.

"Boris [the Center City pig] "has been here for almost two years."

The sanctuary is not intended as a long-term rest home.

"We try to find them adoptive homes," he said. The sanctuary places 50 to 100 pigs a year.

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