Saving their bacon Pigs: They've gone from pet of the '80s to cast-off of the '90s. Now a handful of unlikely rescuers is working to assure that orphaned potbellied pigs have a place to call home.

January 04, 1998|By Joanne P. Cavanaugh | Joanne P. Cavanaugh,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Jesse Hadaway limps across a dirt pen and cups his hands around his mouth. "Come on!" he bellows, and in a half-second, pigs begin exploding out of a pair of old house trailers, skidding and tumbling over each other until they reach him, salivating and snuffling at his feet.

"I feel like the Pied Piper," Hadaway says, tossing broken-up dog biscuits at the mob of grunting, upturned mouths.

Hadaway's Joppa home has become a refuge for pigs, specifically Vietnamese potbellied pigs. Despite a bad back and knee and hassles with county zoning officials, Hadaway finds himself feeding and raking manure for 48 orphaned pigs.

It's safe to say it's the last job Hadaway, 54, ever thought he'd have. Before he created the refuge last year, he'd spent 17 years on the Eastern Shore at his family's meat-packing business, where he processed pork.

"This," he muses, "is my penance."

Standing beside his brick rancher, Hadaway watches his hungry herd traverse his back yard. "A lot of people think you are crazy to be fooling around with a bunch of pigs. I know I can't rescue them all. And that's hard, some days. I hate to turn them away when I know they might be put down."

More and more, that's just what's happening. The hot pet of the late '80s -- once dubbed "yuppie puppies" -- the potbelly has fallen from its pig pedestal. Cute as piglets, many of the squat, hairy black porkers have been abandoned and abused after growing into less than lovely adulthood. They have turned out to grow much bigger than breeders first projected, to an average of 125 pounds, and true to their wild roots, they can be aggressive, challenging owners or trying to establish their domain over a new baby in the house.

So, in droves, the pigs have been turned loose to roam the streets, left in boxes in people's driveways, even taken to slaughterhouses. So many are being shunned that at least 20 sanctuaries dedicated to these outcasts are now operating across the country. Since 1994, three have been started in the Baltimore area alone. One of the nation's first and largest, "PIGS, a sanctuary," in Charles Town, W. Va., now shelters more than 200 pigs.

"Animal sanctuaries seem to be the thing," says Dale Riffle, co-founder of PIGS. "That's good and bad. We can't take every pig, so they're needed."

Like Jesse Hadaway, other refuge operators seem as improbable in the role of rescuer as the potbelly has proved to be as house pet. Through abandonment, it appears, the pigs have found the people who love them.

In Elkridge, former English teacher Cathy Gaynor has taken in 20 pigs (along with two horses, a 40-year-old pony, a miniature horse, four sheep, a donkey, four dogs and seven cats). Her Heron Run Refuge, set up in 1993 to fulfill a lifelong dream to care for orphaned horses, soon shifted its focus to pigs.

"The calls for the horses didn't come, and instead I got calls to take in pigs," says Gaynor, who has her own pet potbelly, Wilbur. "Before that, I had absolutely no clue there was a problem."

After a visit to Heron Run, Faye Shockro got so upset about the potbelly pig situation that in 1996, she and her husband, Bill, sold their house in Bowie and started their own refuge on 13 acres outside Manchester. So far, she's taken in 15 pigs; three are named for her grandchildren: Robert, Christopher and Emily.

"What's happened to them is grossly unfair," she says. "Pigs are intelligent. They like to be stimulated. You can't just stick them somewhere and not talk to them."

Back in 1985, no one would have imagined such a fate for th Vietnamese potbellied pig. That was the year Keith Connell, a Canadian zookeeper, first exported 18 potbellied pigs to the United States, and began a pig adoption boom.

Known as the "Con-line" (after Connell), the pigs were the offspring of feral pigs from the woods of Vietnam. The animals were distinctive: black, with a swayed back and pronounced potbelly.

At the pig's zenith, the highest price paid for a breeding sow was a reported $37,000. It seemed a sound investment; potbellies were in demand, and they proved to be prolific breeders, producing offspring in little more than three months. The piglets began appearing on the leashes of the rich and famous, captured by the paparazzi trotting alongside such celebrities as Julia Roberts.

But as their popularity grew, more novice backyard breeders got into the game, and potbellies were inbred or even crossbred with farm pigs, creating larger litters and bigger pigs. A breed that once sold for $1,000 to $10,000 a pop, a pedigreed potbelly today can still go for $250 to $500. But it's tough to even give the rest away.

These days, in fact, "they are a dime a dozen," says Marilyn

Trapnell of Federalsburg. Trapnell says she became the first potbelly breeder in Maryland when she bought a potbelly for $5,000 from the Cincinnati Zoo in the mid-'80s. "I got out of it a few years ago, because people were trashing them."

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