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Pigs Need Love Too!

My first introduction to the potbellied pig was when I worked at the local shelter, Humane Society of Southern Arizona, in 1995. I remember so clearly the shelter manager, Pat Hubbard, commenting, “just wait. Give it a few years and these will be throwaway pets”. How right she was.

The potbellied pig in America today, can be traced to the import of just 14 pigs by Keith Connell into Canada for a zoo and subsequent disbursement of litters to the US mainly for petting zoos. The breed line from this group was called “the Con line”. Shortly after the original importation, at least two other "breed types" were brought into the U.S., the "Lea Line" and the “Royal Line”. These pigs, Con, Lea and Royal, represent most of the foundation stock found in America today. And what a progeny! and what prolific breeders. Young males are fertile before they are two months old and females come into heat in the presence of an active male. Given that litters range from 2-12 and gestation is just under four months, you don’t have to be a genius to work out the numbers. There are literally thousands of these creatures in backyards and on rural lots throughout the US today and an exotic pet that in the early days of its introduction to North America could sell for $20,000 is now a throwaway.

Enter Mary Schanz and her husband Ben Watkins. Jointly they founded and run Ironwood Pig Sanctuary onsnoozing potbellied pig - The Ironwood Pig Sanctuary 80 acres of beautiful desert in Marana, Arizona. The couple, Californians, have lived in the Tucson area about 20 years. Mary, a retired medical technologist, who became an animal rights activist after moving to Tucson and Ben, a retired engineer, volunteered at a pig sanctuary. The need for additional sanctuary for these animals and the ever increasing numbers led them to found The Ironwood Pig Sanctuary. Mary explained to me, “It seemed like everywhere I looked, animals needed help. I was making myself ill. I’d read a news item about an elderly horse being dragged behind a pick up; of the thousands of cats and dogs euthanized each year and I was close to despair. Founding the sanctuary gave me a single focus and I thought that if I could do something to slow down the breeding, I’d really be helping”. With 531 pigs in residence at Ironwood, the couple is working to help with the over population problem. It is a labor of love that is all consuming and exhausting. All males at the shelter are neutered and most of the females have been spayed. Some, because of age or medical concerns, are not spayed but of course they are never in a position to reproduce.

In the first two years of the sanctuary most rescues came from individuals. “He grew too big” “I’m getting a divorce and my wife stuck me with her pig”“we’re moving and can’t take them”. Others were understandable situations; illness, death. Mary did not question the circumstances; she and Ben simply welcomed the pigs “home” and guaranteed them a place for life. They sold property in California to buy the land that houses the sanctuary. Ben used his engineering skills to build pens, bring in water lines, run fences and now he manages the non profit and writes the monthly news letter.

pig in mud Ironwood sanctuaryA tour of the property has the feel of a refugee camp; shade cloth providing shelter, piles of blankets (pigs like to snuggle) and lines of food troughs! The place is spotless; no odor. The residents all have names and are all checked daily, petted and given social time. During the heat of summer wallows are refilled several times a day. These are tropical creatures and the desert would be hard on them were it not for the shade trees, canopies and wallows. There are several stages of “assisted living” barns for the elderly and large enclosures house family groups or herds that have forged a relationship after coming to the sanctuary.

“We do adopt out some, mostly the younger rescues, but only in groups of two”, Mary explained. “They areCome on gimme a kiss. Pigs are sociable - The Ironwood Pig Sanctuary very sociable creatures and form strong bonds with one another. Without a pig friend they can become dominant in a domestic setting and try to take charge of any other creature (including humans) that are around. We do home checks prior to placement and of course we never adopt out to anyone who has additional un neutered pig to avoid any breeding”.

She said potbelly pigs can be and are wonderful pets for the right people. namely those who have done their homework and research and checked with sanctuaries such as Ironwood so they know what the needs of the pigs are and what their personalities are like. Once an expensive fad, people could get rich quick by breeding them. That time is past and now there are only many, many, unwanted pigs with nowhere to go.

This past year they have seen many multiple large group pig rescues. Backyard breeders who find there is no longer money in breeding and simply abandon them in place or turn them loose in the desert; others are good hearted people who"rescue" pigs but fail to spay or neuter and the breeding gets out of control. Mary's ire is directed at those who continue to breed with a profit motive in mind and sell unaltered pigs for a few dollars. Despite the efforts of Ben and Mary, the numbers keep escalating. She was aware of my delight in the antics of some baby pigs born from a recent rescue group and asked that I not feature those images..."people go for cute" she said "and we don't want to encourage that."

I asked Mary her goals for the sanctuary. “To see it close because there are no more needy pigs”. She estimates that 50% of the current residents will pass away in another 5 years, old age being a factor. Typical life span is 12 to16 years.

Unwanted potbellied pigs find sanctuary - The Ironwood Pig SanctuaryFollowing Mary around the sanctuary her passion for her work is palpable as is her genuine love for these animals. Her empathy is real and she has given her life over to this mission.I came away in awe of both Ben and Mary's dedication. I was sobered too knowing that every few years we see a specific breed of animal become the “in thing” and I think of all the Chihuahua tucked under arms and into purses that I see as I drive around town. I can’t help thinking that they are the next “disposable” animals. Meanwhile, as recently as last month a “hoarder, breeder” was raided in Cochise Country and numerous small breed dogs living under despicable conditions were rescued. Spaying and neutering is the only solution to unwanted pets.

Ben and Mary have lost their dream of a retirement filled with travel and instead have undertaken a monumental task. They are both remarkable people deserving of support.

The sanctuary is a registered non profit 501(c)(3) and donations are tax deductible. Its annual budget of $500,000 is funded by donations and a few relatively small grants. Many donors sponsor a specific pig and pay around $30 a month for upkeep.

For the past 3 years they have been searching for someone to take over their role in running the sanctuary and offer accommodations and salary. “No one seems to want to do the job…” she trails off but adds, “some one will, it’s just a case of finding the right people”.

For more information visit www.ironwoodpigsanctuary.org

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