Bullish On Swine
They may seem aggressively unattractive to the outsider, but that's just pig prejudice. Owners and breeders of the Vietnamese potbellied breed have learned to see the beauty in the beast.
The Orlando Sentinel - January 2, 1991
Chicago - To those unschooled in swinedom the charm of the Vietnamese pot-bellied pig may not be immediately apparent.
The animal is squat and stumpy, with a swayback, the stomach of a bowler, a face ribbed with fat folds, and a stiff, almost reptilian hide stuck with bristly hairs. It does not seem unfair to call it an aggressively unattractive animal, about as cuddly as the average tapir.
Then there are its habits. It sleeps most of the time, and wouldn't mind eating the rest. Peeved, it makes a noise like an immense drain unclogging. It will defoliate houseplants or uproot carpeting, and, in maturity, it will grow tusks that are a challenge to keep trimmed.
It likes to eat pork.
Such boorish behavior, however, has failed to still the enthusiasm of pot-bellied pig fanciers, who have managed to turn the semiexotic creatures into animals whose popularity approaches faddishness.
Among their ranks are Jim and Anne Maar Cortino, a suburban Chicago couple whose idea of a properly appointed kitchen includes a stove, a dishwasher and two Asian porkers underfoot.
Their names are Waldo and Iggy, and they are, in every sense of the phrase, house pigs - more specifically, kitchen pigs. They come when you call them (although more quickly when you have food in your hand). They sleep and eat on the kitchen floor. And they stand plaintively at the front door, waiting to be amid nature before answering her call.
Also on the plus side, they are much smaller than your garden variety farm pig (about one-tenth the size, although, at about 120 pounds apiece, Waldo and Iggy are big for their type), they get along well with the Cortinos' dogs, and they can be trusted to roam their rural yard untethered.
Though credited with characteristics ranging from intelligence to cleanliness, they are not, it should be said, as smart as Arnold, the pet pig on Green Acres, who would explain TV plots to Eva Gabor; indeed, unlike Arnold, they appear not to know enough to be threatened by bacon-related remarks. Nor are they as congenial as Wilbur, the benevolent pig of Charlotte's Web fame.
But the Cortinos have lived with pigs almost two years now, and they are not at all shy about saying things such as, "I think most people don't understand pigs" (Jim) and "If what you want is love from a pet, you'll get it from a pig. You'll get it from a dog, too, but they'll just lick your face without thinking about it. The pigs think about it" (Anne).
They've developed theories of pig psychology, calling them crafty and "elfish" and postulating that most of what they do can in some way be tied to food. Says Anne of their relationship to strangers, "They're suspicious at first, but if you give them a cookie, you're their friend for life."
She adds that at this point in the relationship, "They've accepted us as, I think, pigs."
As Jim Cortino, a 43-year-old helicopter pilot, tells it, the whole pig-as-pet concept stemmed from their honeymoon in early 1989 in Ixtapa, Mexico.
They were in the hotel room watching CNN when a feature came on about the new-to-the-United States breed that was winning hearts and minds of exotic-pet fans.
Anne, who's 32 and a paralegal, had always been a collector of ceramic pigs and other pig trinkets, and her mom had had a regular size pig back in the family's native Estonia. But Jim got a more ambitious idea in his head: "I kind of thought it'd be so nice to get Anne a pig for a wedding present. "We got home, and - well, let me show you the family album."
In it are a series of adoring snapshots of the pigs - Waldo came first, followed by littermate Iggy - on various family outings. Some of the pictures have self-explanatory captions, such as the one showing their first encounter with a toddler: "Waldo and Iggy with 'Baby Casey" 11/18/89." For others, Anne supplies amplification: "Oh, Michelob, he loved it!"
The reaction of strangers upon seeing pigs on a leash is, generally, surprise. "They'll walk by and say 'Gee, I thought that was a bulldog? What kind of dog is that?' " says Anne.
In advance of a visit, Jim says, "We won't tell our friends. They'll come in, sit down, then do a double take: 'Oh, my goodness! It's a pig!' That's the biggest reaction - laughter, sometimes uncontrolled."
Anne finds that despite the critters' cuteness, "there's a lot of prejudice, pig prejudice."
The attitude of Jim's father, says his son, is "he likes them, but he wouldn't have them."
"My mom is the same," says Anne. "Why don't you get a heater in the barn?' "
J. Lincoln Roth, on the other hand, is bullish on pigs. The owner of Just Swine & Dandy Pets in Fairbury, ILL., south of Pontiac, Roth is the breeder from whom the Cortinos bought Waldo and Iggy.
"I really like pigs," Roth says. "I not only like the money they make me, but I like the animal."
He is asked how a 4th-generation family farmer such as himself got into pot-bellied pigs. "I raise what I call my domestic pigs. I'm a feeder pig man; I get hog magazines. One day I got this magazine called Hogs Today. And the article said Midwest breeders are now getting a chance to get in on the yuppie pet of the future."
He began calling around to people who were identified as breeders of the yuppie pet. "Everybody I'd call: 'Yeah, we have pot-bellied pigs. We'll put you on our list.' I called this lady up in Spring Grove, which is in McHenry County near the Wisconsin border. Same story: 'We have a sow due in April. I'll put you down on my list.' "
Not long after, though, Roth got a letter from the woman. As he recalls, it went something like this: "With 14 dogs, nine children, pigs and a husband that travels a lot, I'd be glad to get out of one of my projects. I choose to get out of pot-bellied pigs."
So Roth and the woman struck a deal, and he went home, in early 1989, with three pigs: a sow, a boar, and a barrow, or neutered male, the kind that makes the best pet.
"I still have Bossanova. I still have Hamlet," Roth says. "My original sow has died through an unfortunate accident we won't go into."
His charges have had five litters, a total of 26 piglets. In that time, he has seen the price they commend drop drastically. "At fist, any pot-bellied female brought two, three thousand dollars. Now you have females a lot cheaper. There there was a lot of scamming going on, with people interbreeding, mixing in regular pigs. Now there's a registration and so forth. It's more straightened out."
Barrows, once more than $1,000, are now down to $500 and less.
"Everybody says I ought to get out because the market's starting to break, but I enjoy them so much. Let's say they get down to two, three hundred dollars, which is what a dog costs. I can still make money at that, and I still enjoy them."
Most of the Vietnamese pigs in this country descended, Roth says, from the herd of a Canadian farmer named Connell, who is now a rich man. Connell apparently got his pigs from Europe, where they had been brought from Asia.
A current fad in pot-bellied pigs, Roth says, is a line of white pigs said to have been bred that way by a European royal family. "These white pig people are gonna kill me," he says, "but my personal thing is, if I were gonna have a little pet, I would want an all-black little porker. But that's me. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder."
As the conversation draws to a close, Roth is thumbing through a new, glossy, bimonthly magazine, Pot-Bellied Pigs. "Here's the pet of the month," his is saying. "Wee Willie Winkly."
By Steve Johnson