Once regarded as slovenly creatures, pigs are shedding their dirty reputation. Pet owners have discovered that they possess a host of endearing qualities — trainability and cleanliness, surprising intelligence and distinct personality. Swine may never achieve the universal popularity of cats and dogs, but they have established a firm position among the ranks of urban pets.
The House Pig
Bentley sits obediently on command, walks on a leash, and rolls over obligingly for belly rubs. He plays well with chew toys and the family dogs. He also holds a domestic trump card: Although still a baby, he already has an instinctive preference to do his business outside.
Caitlin Estes and fiancé Marshall Youngstrom are the proud “parents” of the 14-week-old miniature pot-bellied pig. However, Estes points out that while Bentley is a good house pet, he’s not just a flat-nosed puppy.
For one thing, he’s much more vocal than a dog, and his piggy discourse is full of nuance. His vocabulary includes short, staccato grunts that relay affection; pleased snorts reserved for belly rubs; and piercing shrieks for moments of distress.
He’s not cuddly, although he does nuzzle up to his owners for warmth, and he’s always close at hand when there’s food around.
“Anything you’ve ever heard about pigs loving food is a total understatement, ” Estes says. Bentley offers regular cleanup services in the kitchen, and he’ll do just about anything for his favorite treat: Cheerios.
He also has an affinity for anything that makes noise – in particular, toys meant for toddlers. “Anything a kid would play with, a pig would play with, because that’s their mentality level, ” Estes says.
So how did the little pig find his way into Estes’ home? Bentley was a Christmas gift from Estes to Youngstrom. “He thought he was the cutest thing in the world, ” Estes says.
Naturally, heftier hogs thrive better in open-air quarters. In fact, many find companionship with other animals.
The Yard Pig
Down a lonely dirt road in a far corner of Grand Bay lives Chi Chi. She is as large as Bentley is petite; as loud as he is soft-spoken; as rough as he is refined. Chi Chi’s domain is a wooden pen built under a shade tree. She’s much too big to live in the house, but life in the sunshine seems to suit her.
She is by no means secluded. Her next-door neighbor is a goat, and an assortment of dogs lives across the yard. Chickens roam the property freely.
“When we moved out here, ” says owner Rosemary Catlin, “the plan was to have a bunch of animals just because we could.”
Despite her imposing stature, Chi Chi (named for her cheetah-like spots) gets along well with the other pets. She has even forged an unlikely friendship with a Chihuahua named Coco, who likes to venture into the 3-year-old hog’s pen and keep her company.
Catlin recalls that when Chi Chi was younger, she would regularly slip out of her pen and head to the neighbor’s yard to eat the acorns scattered across his lawn. She did this so often that SoCo, one of the family dogs, learned how to shepherd the wayward hog back to her pen.
Today she lives in a new, reinforced enclosure, which seems to have rendered escape attempts a thing of the past. She contents herself with lying in the fresh air, socializing with Coco and peering over the fence to greet visitors.
Pink-eared piglets roam around Kathy Venable’s farm where she breeds the unlikely pets.
The Whole Hog
Breeder Kathy Venable lives with a veritable menagerie. Her Fairhope property is home not just to pigs, but also to goats, chickens, rabbits, pheasants, dogs, a tortoise, a vibrant tropical bird called a sun conure, and a green guenon — or, in everyday parlance, a monkey — named Peanut.
Although Venable’s backyard farm caters in part to the farming community, about half the swine she sells become pets rather than livestock.
When Venable sells a piglet as a pet, she weans it, brings it into her home and allows it to get used to human handling. Only when the little one is socialized does she let it go out into the wide world.
Venable says there are several things a prospective owner should consider. The first step is to read up on pigs and visit a breeder to make sure the reality lives up to the fantasy.
Venable also warns that size matters. A cute piglet can grow into a large hog, so she recommends a little research into the animal’s family history. “I tell anyone who wants a pot-belly, don’t get it unless you see the parents, ” Venable says.
Once an owner commits to a piglet, the next step is to pick a good food. “The owner has the biggest influence (on size), besides genetics, ” Venable says. Avoid commercial foods meant to bulk up the size of livestock, and exercise portion control. Pigs will eat themselves to oblivion, so it’s up to the owner to know how much to feed.
Venable’s last piece of advice: Be attentive. “Realize that pigs are as intelligent, if not more intelligent, than dogs, ” she says. “Their active minds require stimulation and lots of play, so they’re only ideal for people with free time.”
text and photos by Catherine Dorrough