You can’t help but think “bucolic” when you go through the gate: fenced-off fields manicured as neatly as the lawn is, well-tended buildings showing no sign of disrepair, two Great Pyrenees dogs welcoming you like a long-lost friend.
You’d never guess pigs live here.
Potbelly pigs, that is, nearly 100 of them. This is Safe Harboar Farm, 20 acres of sanctuary in Knob Lick to these small pigs that have been neglected, injured, are homeless, or nearly died under the attention of well-meaning owners. Tamara Schweitzer and her husband, Jim Morris, have cared for these pigs in Metcalfe County since 2002. The pigs they have taken in will now live out their lives in a happy, healthy environment.
How did Tamara, the primary caretaker, get so attached to such an unlikely animal?
“When I was a little girl, I read Charlotte’s Web,” she says. “I was totally enamored by Wilbur, and I just never got over it.”
The potbellies are certainly glad of it, and as it turns out, there’s a huge demand for a home for these portly porcines.
“Remember the Vietnamese potbelly pig craze of the ’80s?” she asks. “Well, here are some of the descendants, the result of yet another animal that people thought they wanted, then abandoned.”
When potbellies were first introduced in the U.S., the country went nuts for them: smaller than a lot of dogs, intelligent, capable of being housetrained, sociable and loving, and cute as anything, they became the perfect pet. What could go wrong with a pig?
Within a few years, health problems started occurring: owners didn’t realize the causes, and potbellies were still too new for many vets to know how to care for them.
Obesity became the main health concern. Then as well as today, many potbellies are being not only overfed, but fed the wrong food. Potbellies have a lot of adipose tissue—fat—to begin with, so it’s easy for them to gain tremendous amounts of weight.
“These are not your grandfather’s farm hogs,” Tamara points out. “Their size and nutritional needs dictate an average of two cups of specially formulated food a day, yet the piggies are eating cat food, dog food, scraps, and anything else that’s offered them.” Instead of rooting in the wild, moving about freely as they did in Asia, pet pigs often spend their days in their owner’s house, doing nothing but eating.
With obesity comes fat blindness—literally, the folds of fat around the eyes become so large that the pigs can’t see. And those little bitty legs, or trotters, that are so cute on a pig? They simply cannot hold up a 200-pound pig that is supposed to weigh less than 100 pounds. Arthritis is inevitable, and many pigs become crippled.
Deafness has been another problem, probably due to inbreeding over the years. Tamara explains that not all potbellies are Vietnamese; in general, the different pigs are Asian, and they have been bred with each other as well as with pigs already living in the U.S.
The potbellies at Safe Harboar, a nonprofit facility, are in various stages of recovery—some are critical, others are perfectly healthy—and Tamara can tell you the story of each one.
Betsy Viola “has the best runway walk,” claims Tamara, and indeed she does seem to strut a bit as she has free reign throughout the farm.
Waldo was rescued as a result of Hurricane Katrina. He’s had weight issues due to all the salmon and salad his previous owner fed him.
Mr. Wiggles has a story a bit different from the others. His owner did a good job raising him, letting him be a proper pig—Mr. Wiggles’ health concerns are more age-related. But he’s staying at Safe Harboar while his owner is deployed for the second time in Afghanistan. No worries, though—he’s coming back for his beloved pet.
Earl’s recovering physically and mentally from being attacked by a pack of dogs. He lost his ears and tail, and suffered multiple deep wounds to his body.
Babe is still having aggression problems as a result of his former life. “But if I were deaf, blind, and trying to adjust to a new environment,” Tamara says, “I’d be aggressive, too.”
But the pig that will break your heart is Sammy, a new arrival. Sammy lived what he thought was the good life: indoors, on a bed, all the dog food he wanted. Then his owner died and his whole world changed. Sammy doesn’t yet realize that life at Safe Harboar will be better for him, where he’ll be fed properly, his stiff joints treated, his skin sores seen to, and exercise when he’s ready for it. For now, he’s simply confused, and keeps up a steady keening cry whenever Tamara sits with him. Desperate for reassurance, he huddles as close to Tamara as possible while she pats him and talks to him.
“It’ll take six months to a year to get this piggy healthy,” she says. “This was animal abuse, no way around it. But Sammy is starting to wander the grounds a little now, and that’s an excellent sign that he’s starting to adjust.”
Not all pigs at Safe Harboar are so sad. Many are now happy, healthy, and wildly curious about anyone visiting the farm. It’s real easy to compare them to dogs—they’re friendly, inquisitive, and adore belly rubs. But Tamara takes exception with that idea, despite loving dogs herself.
“They’re not like dogs—to compare them is an injustice to pigs. They’re pigs first and foremost, they are their own species, with their own special needs and attributes.”
That is perhaps the mistake people make when they get a potbelly, thinking they’re getting an odd-looking dog. So Tamara is very cautious about adopting out her pigs.
“When a perfect person, a perfect situation comes along, I’ll adopt one of the healthy pigs. But adoption is not my main focus here.
“I’ve been taking care of pigs for 16 years, and I’ve made my share of mistakes. Now I know what pigs need, and I want to know that anyone adopting a piggy understand its needs.”
For one thing, she says, potbellies aren’t the best companion animals in the house.
“Pigs need to be outside,” she says. “A visit indoors is fine, it’s a good way to spend quality time with your pig, but don’t feed your pig indoors. And pigs and dogs generally don’t live together well, it’s too much a prey/predator relationship, so don’t think by getting a pig you’re getting a companion for your dog.”
Pigs simply need to be pigs, Tamara says, and they’re much happier and healthier outdoors, with a pond or mud hole, and shelter available when needed.
“I’ve learned that house pigs that come here are the sickest, in the worst shape, and they’ve lost their ability for basic behavior, doing ‘piggy things’ like rooting.” Rooting is a natural behavior that is mentally and physically stimulating to a pig, but it does need to be done outdoors—Tamara had a pig turned in by his owner because the pig was rooting in his kitchen linoleum.
Surprisingly, many people don’t take into consideration their area’s zoning laws before getting a potbelly. Not every neighborhood welcomes them, and lots of owners have had to give up their pigs because of it.
Nor do some owners think about vet care. Pigs come with their own set of health problems—particularly gastrointestinal—and not all vets know how to treat potbellies.
Over the years, a lot of impulse buys have resulted in a lot of pigs needing a home…and a lot of love. Luckily, Tamara has the home and an abundance of love. She’d better: Safe Harboar is the only sanctuary in Kentucky just for pigs, and she’s got pigs from at least 13 other states. And while caring for these pigs is her immediate concern, she’s also on a mission to educate the public about potbellies: when they do and do not make good pets, the need to spay and neuter them, and how to care for them so they’re happy and healthy members of the family.
“It can be tough getting people interested in pigs, when most people like cats and dogs. But they really are wonderful, spiritual creatures. And when I see a pig like Sammy, grazing and rooting, and finally being a piggy, my heart just goes pitter-patter.”