Unwanted, sometimes ailing porkers taken in
MESA – Dappo, Spot, Bilbo and Sarah live in a gated community surrounded by saguaros and creosote bushes. They’ve got nosy neighbors such as Lulabel, who talks all the time without saying a word, and loners like Pancho.
Favorite pastimes in this enclave include taking luxurious dips in swimming holes and indulging in refreshing mud baths.
“Pigs are a lot like people,” says Mary Schanz, president and co-founder of the Ironwood Pig Sanctuary. “They make friends in the same way. They argue and fuss with each other just like people do.”
Schanz’s 80-acre sanctuary near Marana is home to about 440 pigs, all of whom were rescued from Phoenix and Tucson. Some were abused, neglected and abandoned by their owners; others were simply dropped off by well-intentioned individuals who could no longer care for these creatures.
“Nobody really wants them,” says Schanz, who opened the sanctuary five years ago with her husband, Ben Watkins. “It’s very sad.”
The pigs roaming the fields of Ironwood are the casualties of a potbellied pig craze that began in the mid-1980s and lasted well into the 1990s. At that time, a potbellied pig imported from Vietnam was as chic as tiny dogs in designer bags are today.
Soon breeders were selling pigs they claimed were potbellied and assuring potential owners that adorable piglets purchased shortly after birth wouldn’t get much bigger (the average potbellied pig is 125 to 150 pounds). But owners soon realized that breeders were lying to them. Their beloved pigs eventually became too big to live indoors, and some homeowners associations banned them.
“I got in on the tail end (of the potbellied pig trend) as a rescuer,” Schanz says as she opens the gate leading to the fields.
Schanz, an animal rights activist, and her husband were volunteers at a sanctuary near Picture Rock. When that sanctuary folded, the couple decided to open their own and have been rescuing pigs ever since, with the help of volunteers.
“We work harder than we’ve ever worked in our life,” Schanz says. “People think sanctuaries are a panacea. It’s not fun. It’s hard work, and that’s the bottom line. Your job is to take care of these animals and see that they are safe.”
Volunteers work to ensure that these pigs are taken care of. The sanctuary is funded entirely by donations.
“We’re pushing hard this year to get in the black,” says Schanz, who was a medical technician.
One by one, Schanz recounts the stories of her residents.
“That’s Tulley,” she says, pointing to a pig at her feet. “He’s epileptic.”
She stops to pet Petunia, or Big P, a pig who came to Ironwood after her family moved to Georgia. Then there’s Abby, a people-loving pig who lives in the special-needs pen. There are also Wilbur, Charlotte or Arnold – in honor of the famous pigs (and spiders) of literature and television. Schanz knows them all by name.
“You get to know them just like you get to know friends,” she says.
When the pigs aren’t lying on the shaded ramadas or rolling around in small water holes scattered throughout the property – pigs don’t sweat, so they need lots of water – at Ironwood they’re free to roam.
Exercise is extremely important: Ironwood is somewhat of a “fat farm” for pigs, who usually arrive morbidly obese from overfeeding. Some are so obese they become blinded by the folds of flesh around their eyes. Others live with arthritis in their elbows.
“These pigs can’t see,” Schanz says. “They can hardly walk.”
Eating like a pig is a misnomer, Schanz says. Their daily diet is two cups of grain and a small portion of hay. And contrary to popular belief, pigs don’t produce a lot of smelly solid waste (they’re vegetarians). But they urinate a lot, hardly the way home owner associations would prefer residents water lawns.
Some pigs will eventually be adopted by families, but not all rescues have a happy ending. Pigs sometimes arrive with health problems such as protruding bellies that hide tumors. Sometimes the only humane thing to do is put them down and bury them in one of Ironwood’s three graveyards. It’s a reality that frustrates and saddens Schanz.
“They finally have a safe place, and then it’s not safe,” Schanz says. “At least they weren’t where they were, where they would have suffered.”