Time and again it's the same story. That cute little piglet turns out to be too much to handle.
"People say, 'We bought a pig a year and a half or two years ago, and the breeder told us it would not get larger than 40 pounds," said Jen Reid, manager of Marshall's Piggy Paradise at Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in Utah. Then the animal grows to 150 or 250 pounds — or more.
That's what happened to Steve Jenkins and Derek Walter, whose Esther the Wonder Pig is now famous online. They've written a book (Esther the Wonder Pig: Changing the World One Heart at a Time, with Caprice Crane, Grand Central Publishing, 2016) about the tiny piglet who grew up to weigh 650 pounds.
Pigs are curious and strong. That became clear long before Esther was her full size.
"When Esther was about 250 or 300 pounds, she stuck her nose under the couch and lifted the whole thing in the air with us sitting on it," Jenkins said.
Their jaw strength is just as impressive. When she was only about 100 pounds, Esther got into a cupboard full of canned goods. "She crushed those cans like they were butter."
Pigs can be house-trained, but Walter calls their experience "memorable."
"We were going through a rainforest worth of paper towels," he says. "Imagine throwing 3 gallons of water on the floor — how many towels you'd need." They tried to train her to use a litter box indoors, but eventually even a kiddie pool wasn't big enough. When they switched to outdoors, she tried to train them: She'd ask to go out constantly, pretend to pee, and then come running for her treat.
Having a pig in the house changed everything — and not just in the house.
Before Esther, "the house was immaculate, the yard was immaculate," Jenkins said.
But one of a pig's fundamental needs is to root around in the dirt. "She didn't want to just eat the grass, she wanted to flip it over because she likes the roots," he said.
If none of that puts you off and you're still passionate about having a pig, first check zoning regulations. If they define pigs as livestock and you're not zoned for livestock, your pet is illegal — as Esther was, in their first home.
Then, be very careful about what you're getting. Candace Croney, associate professor of animal sciences at Purdue University, says it is possible to breed pigs in the 40- or 50-pound range that some breeders claim to offer, but you should ask about the parents' size and the average adult size of their previous litters.
Be prepared to maintain a healthy weight for a pet pig. Many of those that come to Best Friends Sanctuary are grossly overweight. Remember, said Croney, that pigs are both very smart and genetically programmed to spend most of their day looking for food.
"The ones that are really good pet pigs, that are offering us cute behaviors, will learn very quickly that that's how you get extra food out of people," she said. And because pigs were domesticated and bred to be meat animals, they tend to put on weight quickly.
Having pigs with other pets also can be a challenge. Pigs are social animals, but their interactions are particular to their species.
"They have little posturing, challenging matches — it's part of their innate behavior," Reid said. "And what we see is that only other pigs can relate with them in the same way. When they start doing that with people it turns into aggression, and when they try it with dogs, either the dog can get hurt, or it prompts an attack from the dog."
Jenkins and Walter agree that caution is essential.
"We've seen some sad and scary situations of pigs and dogs getting into fights," Walter said. Esther is used to the dogs she was raised with, but she's not allowed to play with them. When she wants to, the humans intervene and redirect her to play with them instead.
To meet pigs' social needs, Best Friends adopts them out only in pairs, or to homes where there is already a pig companion.
"From what we've seen and experienced here, pigs do best when they have the opportunity to live with other pigs," Reid said.
An apartment isn't a suitable home for a pig, she said by way of understatement, but you don't need a farm either. Pigs need the opportunity to go outside and root, but otherwise the match depends on the individual, as with any other pet.