Pigging out at Farm Sanctuary

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The trip from Oakville, Iowa, to Watkins Glen, N.Y., is about 850 miles, a 14-hour drive for anyone who wants to complete the journey in one long day. Earlier this summer, Mabel and some of her cohorts made the drive in about 15 hours. But it was the pre-trip maneuvering that proved to be newsworthy.

Mabel is one of the pigs rescued during severe flooding this summer in Iowa, animals that were photographed and caught on video as they perched on levees, struggling to stay alive. Conditions were so grim in the farming state (Iowa ranks first in pork production in the U.S.) that the Iowa Department of Agriculture asked volunteer groups to consider a rescue mission. Four rescue agencies raised their hands: the International Fund for Animal Welfare, American Humane Assn., the Animal Rescue League of Boston and Farm Sanctuary. Which brings us back to Watkins Glen, headquarters for Farm Sanctuary and new home for more than 60 pigs plucked from the levees.

If pigs have an emotional life, it seems fairly certain that the Farm Sanctuary sanctuary might seem like an extended vacation after life on a large pig farm. Farm Sanctuary representatives (who campaign vociferously against factory farming and would be thrilled if we all were vegans) say that that the breeding sows like Mabel are housed in crates; other pigs are sold for slaughter after they reach a certain weight.

Conditions at the sanctuary are, well, different. The facility is about eight miles west of Watkins Glen, 175 acres of rolling hills and assorted barns. The pigs formerly known as Iowans have their own attendants and their own barn and outside yards in which they happily indulge in porcine activities: sleeping, eating and rolling around in mud and other materials we’d rather not contemplate.


Some of those pigs are also indulging in a surprise activity: parenthood.

The Watkins Glen facility houses about 850 animals at any given time. Most of them will, presumably, live out their days in peace (except perhaps for the goat that tried to steal the car keys from our pocket) or they will be sent to other sanctuaries or private homes around the country with the same expectations.

But parenthood is not a part of the plan.

Officials at Farm Sanctuary are the first to explain that they are not in the business of breeding animals. Many new arrivals are quickly spayed or neutered. Unless they arrive pregnant.

At least one of the pregnant pigs gave birth in Iowa before it was rescued; those babies were lost. Two of the animals that made it to Watkins Glen miscarried; some of the piglets born to other mothers were too weak or sick to survive. But on an August afternoon in the Finger Lakes region of New York, quite a few of them raced through their barns and pens, snorting, suckling, and (sorry) squealing. Rather than describe them as adorable, let’s just say that they exemplify that unwritten rule of nature: babies are born cute to ensure their survival into adulthood.

Pig adulthood isn’t so cute. Take the aforementioned Mabel and her piglets (which were born at the sanctuary). Mabel is, truth told, rather, large (she weighs in somewhere between 500 and 600 pounds according to her caretakers). And she is, understandably, swinish. Her offspring, on the other hand, look as if they had been ordered up by a Hollywood casting agency working on “Babe the Next Generation.” The same can be said for all the piglets.

Our favorite youngster was a runt named Crusty, at left, whose mother is named Rosebud. He was about one-third the size of his siblings, but true to his gender, he was more than happy to challenge other male pigs of all sizes. And he evidenced class clown tendencies as well. When his siblings pushed him away from their mother during meal time, Crusty was delighted to drink from a large saucer of milk ... while standing in the middle of it.

Susie Coston, Farm Sanctuary’s national shelter director (she’s pictured at top, holding a new friend), emphasizes the social nature of the (relatively) new arrivals. ‘They have a very strong pecking order,’ she said. ‘They bond,’ which is one reason the organization tries to place ‘friends’ together when they adopt out. As of this writing, more than 50 of the Iowans have been adopted or promised to other sanctuaries or individual homes.

According to their caretakers, some of the adult pigs still bear the signs of distress from life on an Iowa hog farm. Their noses may be rubbed sore or some of their front teeth may be missing, signs, caretakers say, of their previous lives in crates. To a visitor, however, they appear to be well adjusted.

If pigs have an emotional life (and Coston swears they do), the Iowans probably believe they’ve landed in hog heaven.

-- Alice Short