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's kunekune 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 the Pig 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 Preserve in 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.
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.
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.