The Big Problem With Mini-Pigs


The Big Problem With Mini-Pigs

Marissa Cumutte

for National Geographic


In 2012, as a favor to a friend, Canadians Steve Jenkins and Derek Walter adopted a three-pound (1.4-kilogram) "mini-pig" named Esther. Or so they thought. Within two years Esther wasn't so mini. In fact, she weighed 500 pounds (227 kilograms).








"We didn't want to believe it," says Jenkins, "but at four months it became painfully obvious she would be larger than we thought. She grew about three-fourths of a pound a day. And she's still growing now."

Like thousands of others before them, Jenkins and Walter had been duped into thinking that their tiny pig would stay tiny—perhaps small enough to fit in a teacup—and make as good a house pet as any dog or cat.

But as the couple soon learned, those promises are essentially marketing ploys—ones that unscrupulous breeders have been using more and more frequently over the past 15-plus years. Since 1998, the number of "mini-pigs"—a catch-all term that characterizes just about any small-breed pig—in the United States and Canada has risen from 200,000 to perhaps as many as a million.

To keep the animals' size down, many breeders have been inbreeding and underfeeding their pigs, telling buyers that piglets are actually adults, or—as in Esther's case—passing off commercial pigs originally intended for food as a smaller breed of pig.

Most of these animals end up in overburdened shelters or are euthanized once they outgrow their suburban habitats.

But there may be some good news. Reputable breeders and rescuers are working to educate the public and regulate the trade in the U.S. and Canada. And the number of sanctuaries has grown significantly—from a handful in the 1980s to a few hundred today—thanks, in recent years, to 21st-century fund-raising efforts.

Will those measures be enough to curb the surprisingly big mini-pig problem?


How It All Began

The novelty of petite pigs in the U.S. began in 1986, when a few dozen Vietnamese potbellied pigs were imported to American zoos. Private breeders took notice. Some began to breed (or inbreed) and underfeed their potbellies and other small-breed lines, such as New Zealand'skunekune and the state of Georgia's Spanish-descended Ossabaw Island pigs.

These strategies produced pigs much smaller than, say, a thousand-pound farm hog (455 kilograms). But they're never the size of a Chihuahua, as some breeders promise. And their weight is impossible to predict.

Until now, the mini-pig trade in North America—and to a lesser extent Europe—has been a hazy, unregulated industry, with few if any rules. But some individuals and nascent organizations are trying to change that.

The recently established American Mini Pig Association comprises 250 breeders across the country working to create a strict code of ethics and height-based breed classifications. Jaimee Hubert, one of the founders, hopes to launch the organization's website this year.

At the same time, she and others are trying to strengthen purchase contracts, extensively interview prospective buyers, and disseminate accurate information about mini-pigs. If reputable breeders, rescuers, and sanctuary owners agree on one thing, it's that education is key.

"Understanding the nature of your pet, whether it's a pig or a lizard, is vitally important to being a successful caretaker for that animal," says Susan Armstrong-Magidson, a breeder turned rescuer who has run thePig Placement Network, a fostering and adoption system, since 1998. "Had the people buying them—from a roadside stand, county fair, or backyard breeder—been given more information, they may not have bought the pig in the first place."

Hubert says bad breeders can ruin things for the good ones.

"It really irritates us," she says. "We're just as mad as everyone else about it. We have to spend an exorbitant amount of time educating. And we're taking a lot of flak and having to defend ourselves."

Hubert says sanctuaries are quick to blame all breeders for the overwhelming numbers of rescued mini-pigs. Best Friends Animal Society in Kanab, Utah, estimated a total of 300,000 in 2009—a figure that's grown in the years since.

But, says Hubert, breeders who are reputable understand that they're responsible for the pigs they bring into the world. It's their duty to spay and neuter piglets, match them with dedicated and informed owners, and find new homes for them if anything goes wrong. Places that don't, Hubert adds, are no better than puppy mills.

Rich Hoyle, a 20-year sanctuary veteran who founded The Pig Preservein Jamestown, Tennessee, eight years ago, says he's seeing more rescued minis with congenital problems—such as deep recessed eyes, males born with retained testicles, and females born without an anus—because of poor breeding practices. On many rescues, the herd of 50 to 100 pigs he encounters are descended from one pair of siblings.

"These poor inbred and half-starved pigs are inundating sanctuaries," says Hoyle. "Probably 90 percent of the so-called micro pigs"—that's one of the mini-pig's many nicknames; others include teacup pigs and pocket pigs—"will either be dead or in a sanctuary before they are two years old."

Fortunately, there are more sanctuaries than ever to receive them.


Seeking Sanctuaries

Lana Hollenback founded the Forgotten Angels Rescue and Education Center in Deer Lodge, Tennessee, in 2008 as a resource for individuals and other sanctuaries that need new homes for pigs. These days she fields ten calls a day for false minis.

Armstrong-Magidson's Pig Placement Network adopts out 60 pigs a year from her boarding program at Ross Mill Farm in Rushland, Pennsylvania. She says phone calls—mostly concerning pigs under two years old whose owners thought they would fit in their pocket—have been "increasing tremendously" over the past few years.

And then there are Esther's owners, Jenkins and Walter. As Esther grew, so did the couple's resolve to keep her. That meant upgrading from their 1,000-square-foot home (93 square meters) and moving to a place large enough to open a sanctuary for Esther and other farm animals. This year, people from 40 countries donated more than $400,000 to make their Happily Ever Esther Farm Sanctuary a reality.

Jenkins, a real-estate agent, and Walter, a magician, say the "Esther effect"—their term for how one pig has caused them to rethink their entire way of living—is inspiring them to do more. To make sure the sanctuary in Campbellville, Ontario, is eventually self-funded, they want to open a year-round bed and breakfast, which would give visitors ample time to interact with the pigs and walk the area's forest trails. They also plan to open a meatless restaurant, with food grown in a community garden that becomes an ice rink in winter.

"It's easy to make changes to your lifestyle when you've got that kind of motivation," Jenkins says. "We love Esther so much that it's not a stretch to make it our life's work."

Havens are opening elsewhere as well. The American Sanctuary Association now accredits 37 such places in the United States, and estimates there are a few hundred more. About 20 long-running sanctuaries rescue only pigs.

Since the early 2000s, Best Friends Animal Society has taken in stray pigs let loose in the desert or left behind when people move. The organization recently remodeled its living quarters for the pigs, using $500,000 it received via donations to turn the space into Marshall's Piggy Paradise sanctuary.

Meanwhile, mini-pig numbers at Marana, Arizona's Ironwood Pig Sanctuary grew from 329 in 2005 to nearly 600 today. Half the rescues in the past nine years were non-mini mini-pigs like Esther.

Too Many Pigs, Too Few Dollars

While the number of sanctuaries has been growing, the funding for them hasn't been keeping pace. That means overcrowding is becoming an issue at existing havens. At least ten pig sanctuaries have closed in the past two years from lack of space and funding.

Forgotten Angels' Hollenback says a big part of her job these days is persuading owners to say "no." The Pig Preserve's Hoyle calls it the "potato-chip theory"—thinking you can fit just one more rescued pig in the sanctuary is like thinking you can eat just one more chip.

"If you are not careful," says Hoyle, "you can 'just one more' yourself and your sanctuary right into bankruptcy. Our hearts sometimes get in the way of our brains."

The fiscal solution may lie in the wisdom of crowdfunding. In the past two years, crowdfunding sites have hosted thousands of campaigns for a variety of animal sanctuaries.

For contributing to Esther's home, the 7,461 online donors received an assortment of goodies, including a piece of Esther's blanket, a video chat with the pig herself, and an apple tree planted in their name (the apples will be used as food for the animals).

Esther's "dads" say they gladly ran a five-kilometer race in their Esther-adorned undies after receiving a $30,000 donation. And they've promised that if someone donates $1 million, they'll get married and let the deep-pocketed donor officiate.

Funding methods have come a long way since 1986, when Farm Sanctuary set up the first reserves in the U.S. for abused and neglected farm animals. Social media is a big reason why. Esther's Facebook page reaches two million people each week, and she's been "social" for only ten months.

Going Forward

As the mini-pig problem wears on, new sanctuaries continue to open—but not quickly enough. Virtually all of the existing ones are already at or exceeding capacity.

Hoyle says part of the problem is generational. "We know that there are not too many young people coming along behind us who are crazy enough to want to step into our shoes," he says.

Hoyle's wardrobe consists of dirty jeans, battered boots, and sweat-stained shirts. One of his trucks, covered in mud, rust, and "a few petrified pig turds on the inside," has almost 500,000 miles (805,000 kilometers) on the odometer. And his refrigerator contains more pig medicine than human food. But he wakes before dawn every day and works into the dark every night because, as he puts it, pigs don't respect holidays, bad weather, or doctor's notes.

To keep costs down Hoyle has learned to do routine veterinary procedures himself—a common strategy among sanctuary owners. He gives enemas to pigs that overindulge on acorns, trims their tusks and hoofs, and occasionally lances abscesses.

Hoyle has pared down his lifestyle to make up for donor shortfalls. He's built a financial cushion that will allow him to stay operational for six months with no support. He's networked with other sanctuaries, swapping pigs to level the cumulative load. And he's traveled from New Jersey to New Mexico to help stage emergency rescues from failed sanctuaries.

"We watch the flash-in-the-pan sanctuaries that so often hit the scene with a lot of fanfare and up-front money," he says, "and we wonder how long they will last before they go the way of so many before them. And lately, we have watched a few of our old guard lay down and die well before their time."

Jenkins and Walter are months away from moving to their new farm. They've already secured spots in the sanctuary for a rescued horse and donkey.

But they're already having to deny animals; if they gave in to current demand, they say, their future sanctuary would be at full capacity within a week. So they know they need to develop Esther's haven slowly and carefully.

"People know who we are, and they want their animals to come to us," Jenkins says, "which is beautiful, but heartbreaking—when you have to say 'no'—and terrifying."

It's a lot to handle for a couple who, just a few years ago, didn't know farm sanctuaries existed. But the Esther effect makes it worthwhile. Jenkins and Walter continue to care for the pig that inspired it all, feeding the not-so-little lady her 14 cups of food each day.


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How companies profit from your free National Coffee Day Joe

It's Monday, which means it's time to get back to your daily grind. And while that's usually no cause for celebration, here's something that's sure to perk you up.

It's National Coffee Day, and businesses around the nation are handing out free coffee.

Dunkin' Donuts is offering up its new dark roast coffee — you can get a free medium-sized cup to celebrate the holiday. 

>> Read more trending stories  

Krispy Kreme will give you a free 12-ounce cup of coffee or a 12-ounce mocha, latte, or iced coffee for $1. It even has signs and eCards to advertise the one-day promotion. 

And National Coffee Day marks the last day of McDonald's two-week promotion for a free small coffee during breakfast hours. 

That's a latte free coffee! And it got us wondering — why would companies want to give away the caffeinated beverage for free?

>>How to brew one great cup of coffee

CNN says it's all about the marketing. "Of course it's a stunt, a marketing celebration of the juice on which America runs."

And a writer for The Street says free samples are a great way to overcome a difficult challenge in product marketing: "Getting a customer to even try a product is the biggest part of the battle ... With the free sample, a company gets the customer to try a product without putting up a price barrier."

TIME suggests free things are a great way to make sales on the spot or turn an opportunist into a loyal customer. The article quotes a psychologist who says, "Why does this work? You’ve been given something, seemingly for nothing, and now you feel obligated to reciprocate by buying the item."

So you enjoy that hot cup of joe. And then drown in the caffeinated guilt when you drive away without buying anything; it's what the marketers want, anyway. 

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KLM launches adorable lost and found service

Sherlock the beagle tasked with returning items forgotten on planes

(CNN) -

Warning: After seeing this achingly adorable video of KLM's newest employee in action you might be tempted to leave your gadgets behind on your next flight into Amsterdam.

Meet Sherlock, the appropriately named beagle tasked by the Royal Dutch Airlines with returning items forgotten on planes by passengers flying into Schiphol Amsterdam Airport.

"We train for muscle strength, endurance and, of course, socialization," says Dirk Van Driel, Sherlock's trainer.


    "When you see the reactions of the passengers, that really is amazing."

    Judging by the collective "awww" that rings out through the arrivals hall as Sherlock uses his remarkable sniffing powers to track down the owner of a forgotten iPhone, the dog is a hit.

    'He can really do something no one else can'

    KLM says Sherlock is part of a new lost and found team put together in response to the high number of queries about forgotten items the airline receives through social media.

    Should the incredibly eager beagle not be around to help, the airline uses information such as seat numbers, phone numbers and public social media details to reunite passengers with their belongings.

    "Personally, I think he's a real asset to the company," says Chantel Kremer of KLM's ground crew.

    "And he can really do something no one else can."

    Prized for their phenomenal sense of smell and ability to categorize scents, beagles are a familiar site in airports around the world.

    Perhaps the most famous is the Beagle Brigade -- made up of teams of dogs that inspect luggage for restricted agriculture at U.S. airports.

    What makes Sherlock stand out is that his presence doesn't bring the sense of unease some travelers may feel when one of these little guys starts snooping around their luggage for contraband produce.


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    Can All Work and No Play Make You Diabetic? 

    WEDNESDAY, Sept. 24, 2014 (HealthDay News) -- Working long hours may increase your risk for diabetes, a new study suggests. But the finding seems to depend on your job.

    Researchers examined data from prior studies involving more than 222,000 men and women in the United States, Europe, Japan and Australia who were followed for an average of 7.6 years.

    The initial analysis revealed no difference in the risk of type 2 diabetes among people who worked more than 55 hours a week and those who worked 35 to 40 hours a week.

    However, further analyses showed that people who worked more than 55 hours a week at manual labor or other types of "low socioeconomic status jobs" were 30 percent more likely to develop diabetes than those who worked 35 to 40 hours a week.

    This increased risk remained even after the researchers accounted for diabetes risk factors such as smoking, physical activity levels, age, sex and obesity, and after the researchers excluded shift work, which increases the risk of obesity and diabetes.

    Although the study, published Sept. 24 in The Lancet Diabetes & Endocrinology, found an association between long work weeks and diabetes, it didn't establish a cause-and-effect relationship.

    Further research is needed to learn more about the seeming link between working long hours and increased diabetes risk, the study authors said.

    Possible explanations include the fact that people who work long hours have little time for healthy behaviors such as exercise, relaxation and adequate sleep.

    "Although working long hours is unlikely to increase diabetes risk in everyone, health professionals should be aware that it is associated with a significantly increased risk in people doing low socioeconomic status jobs," Mika Kivimaki, professor of epidemiology at University College London in England, said in a journal news release.

    The authors of an accompanying journal commentary said the findings may have implications for diabetes-prevention programs.

    The study findings remained strong "even after controlling for obesity and physical activity, which are often the focus of diabetes risk prevention, suggesting that work factors affecting health behaviors and stress may need to be addressed as part of diabetes prevention," Dr. Orfeu Buxton, of Pennsylvania State University, and Dr. Cassandra Okechukwu, from Harvard School of Public Health, wrote.

    More information

    The U.S. Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion outlines how to prevent type 2 diabetes.


    -- Robert Preidt


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    Drinking Alcohol More Common on Exercise Days 

    TUESDAY, Sept. 23, 2014 (HealthDay News) -- People tend to drink more alcohol on days when they're more physically active, a new study finds.

    "Monday through Wednesday people batten down the hatches and they cut back on alcohol consumption. But once that 'social weekend' kicks off on Thursdays, physical activity increases and so does alcohol consumption," said study author David Conroy.

    Conroy is a professor of preventive medicine and deputy director of the Center for Behavior and Health at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago.

    The study included 195 people between the ages of 18 and 89. They recorded their physical activity levels and alcohol consumption on their smartphones every day. They did this for 21 days at a time during three separate periods over one year, according to the study.

    The results showed that people tended to be more active and also to drink more Thursday through Sunday. However, the study did not prove a direct link between the two.

    Unlike previous research, this study did not find that active people consume more alcohol than inactive people, the researchers said.

    People who exercise more don't drink more overall, "it's that on days when people are more active they tend to drink more than on days they are less active. This finding was uniform across study participants of all levels of physical activity and ages," Conroy said in a Northwestern news release.

    Further research is needed to learn more about why people drink more on days when they're more physically active, according to the researchers.

    "Perhaps people reward themselves for working out by having more to drink or maybe being physically active leads them to encountering more social situations where alcohol is consumed -- we don't know," Conroy said.

    "Insufficient physical activity and alcohol use are both linked to many health problems, and excessive alcohol use has many indirect costs as well. We need to figure out how to use physical activity effectively and safely without having the adverse effects of drinking more alcohol," he concluded.

    The study was published online Sept. 22 in the journal Health Psychology.

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