Home, sweet sty: Aging pigs herded to new home

jneff@newsobserver.comMarch 10, 2013 

— Penny Jeffrey’s Sunday to-do list was boaring:

1) Coax or coerce 23 aging and anxious pigs into crates.

2) Haul said pigs-in-boxes down a windy path in the woods, across a creek and up a steep hill.

3) Load pigs into trailers and captain a caravan to their new home near Siler City.

Many hogs make for much work, so Jeffrey, director of the swine-rescuing Pig Pals of NC, had cast about for the lifeblood of all struggling non-profits – volunteers.

She located some usual suspects – the Pre-Vet club at N.C. State’s Veterinary School – and an inspired if unusual work force: CrossFit fans, those tire-flipping, rope-climbing, box-jumping fitness freaks who live to lug heavy objects.

“This is a perfect workout,” said Mikael Hardy, an instructor at CrossFit RDU who recruited a dozen students for pig patrol. “You carry oddly shaped weights in uncomfortable positions up and down steps or a crazy trail. We’ve been training all year for this.”

For years, Jeffrey has been training herself in the perils and pleasures of pet pigs.

She bought a Vietnamese pot bellied pig in 1996. Petunia was compact and cute, but after a year grew increasingly aggressive. Jeffrey put her research skills to work (she has a Ph.D. in education) and discovered the number one reason pigs fail as pets – Single Pig Aggression. As herd animals, pigs live together in a hierarchy. With no other pigs, Petunia was establishing her dominance in a herd of one pig and several humans. The solution is simple: get one or more pigs to create a herd.

Jeffrey met fellow pig owners with similar problems. They formed Pig Pals of NC and adopted Winston Churchill’s most famous swine quote as inspiration: “I like pigs. Dogs look up to us. Cats look down on us. Pigs treat us as equals.”

For years they rescued miniature pigs from overwhelmed or unloving owners. They’ve campaigned against unscrupulous breeders who, in pursuit of profits, portray pet pig owning as easy as watching Babe on DVD.

After years of giving shelter to scores of pigs in need, Jeffrey stopped accepting new ones, opting to focus on educating the public.

Jeffrey and her husband, Brian, found that their Durham lot was becoming increasingly difficult for managing their aging pigs.

So they bought six flat wooded acres in Chatham County for the pigs and their family. And by mid-afternoon the pigs were settling into their new pens.

“They’ll live with us until they pass on,” she said.

But getting the pigs there posed some challenges, and none created a bigger job than Markie, who weighs north of 200 pounds and is an expert rooter.

All pigs are aware that they are prey animals, and they don’t like being trapped in small boxes. Markie possesses the most crate-averse porcinality of the lot.

Using a big plastic panel as a moving wall, Jeffery trapped the pig against a fence. Markie stared at the crate, motionless.

“Grab her butt and push her in,” Jeffrey told Emily Turgeon, a CrossFit volunteer.

Turgeon pushed the pig tentatively. Markie, grunting and squealing, reared up, spun around and tried to dash and dive under a fence. Turgeon lept up and made a dash and scream of her own.

Jeffrey, unruffled, explained pig-pushing theory.

“Get low and hug her butt,’ she explained. “She can’t bite you with her butt, And she won’t bite. She might butt you, but she won’t bite you.”

Turgeon let another volunteer have the honors.

“My ‘flight or fight’ went off,” said Turgeon, a history teacher at Cardinal Gibbons High School. “I work with teenagers, not pigs.”

Neff: 919-829-4516

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