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Hog Heaven at the Mini Pigs Sanctuary

For their rescued animals, no more suffering

By Janet Caggiano
Sunday, August 4, 2002

CULPEPER In a previous life, Poke-Poke was beaten repeatedly with a two-by-four. Her owners purchased her when she was a piglet, and when she grew to more than 150 pounds, they no longer saw her as an adorable pet. When the novelty wore off, the abuse began.

Poke-Poke suffered spinal injuries from the beatings, and because her front hooves were never trimmed, she could not walk. Instead, she crawled on her front knees.

Four years ago, Richard and Laura Hoyle put an end to the abuse and helped usher in Poke-Poke's new life. After rescuing her, they brought her to their sanctuary outside Culpeper. There, she walks as she should and continues to blossom alongside hundreds of other potbellied and miniature pigs.

"I've never really been the sensitive type," said Richard Hoyle, a 220-pound firefighter. "But these guys can bring me to tears."

Started in 1989, Mini-Pigs Sanctuary is home to about 220 pigs, including three farm pigs weighing more than 700 pounds each. Many are abuse or neglect cases. Rescued feral cats, a handful of dogs and a goat also live on the 18-acre sanctuary, which is accredited by the Association of Sanctuaries Inc. This national nonprofit organization works to improve the quality of life for animals by establishing standards of care.

"These are not our pets," Richard said. "We don't own them. We are all equals here. This is our slice of heaven."

. . .

The sound of Richard Hoyle unlatching the gate to the feed room indicated breakfast was near.

The 18 pigs that roam the yard alongside the cats and dogs congregated near the gate on this hot July morning. Big Earl, a farm pig who arrived in October after escaping from a factory farm, was first in line.

At 800 pounds, he's hard to ignore.

Before scooping out the custom-feed mixture of al- falfa meal, wheat, soybean and corn (the older pigs get a soft oatmeal mixture), Richard offered hellos, a scratch behind the ears and a tummy rub. Big Earl seemed to smile. When the meal came, the mellow giant ate it contentedly, as if no longer fearful it would be his last.

"He's like the son I never had," Richard said.

A firefighter/paramedic with Fairfax County, Richard is up at 3:30 a.m. so he can get some of the feeding done before he leaves for work.

Then his wife gets up at 4:30 to finish the job before she starts her day as director of admissions at Culpeper Regional Hospital. With only a handful of volunteers who usually help out once a month, the Hoyles' commitment is full time.

"It really works out OK," Laura said. "I focus on my job when I am there. I put in 110 percent. When I get home, I focus on the sanctuary. We might not get to bed until midnight, but that's fine. The simple fact is there is a real need to help these animals. That's why we do what we do."

Filling bucket after bucket, her husband made his way to each of the fenced pastures, where the pigs, divided according to size and temperament, sleep in shelters, root in the dirt and cool themselves in mudholes. New arrivals are quarantined for 30 days, and all males are neutered. (Cats and dogs are spayed or neutered).

As Hoyle unlatched each gate, the pigs trotted over. He resembled the Pied Piper in the large backwoods pasture, leading a group of about 50 pigs to their breakfast bowls. As they walked, he called them by name - "Good morning, Mr. Oinkers! How you doing Clover? C'mon Christine! Room service is coming, sweetheart!"

Feedings can take several hours, because Hoyle looks over each animal, often pausing to rub tummies and play. Under the shade of a tree, Richard got down on all fours to snuggle with Babe, another rescued farm pig. Born with a deformed leg, Babe was about to be thrown in a ditch to die by a farm worker when Beth Jackson took her to her Greene County home.

"My husband wanted to eat her for dinner," Jackson said. "But she became my friend. I had to save her."

When Babe grew to 500 pounds, Jackson could no longer care for her. She read about Mini-Pigs Sanctuary on the Internet and called the Hoyles last year. While they had never rescued a farm pig, they agreed to help.

"I don't know what I would have done," said Jackson, who visits Babe monthly and volunteers at the sanctuary. "I'm afraid [her husband] would have had to take her to the slaughterhouse."

A few months after Babe arrived, the Hoyles took in two more farm pigs, Big Earl and Leo. They roam and play with their smaller counterparts.

"I'm so thankful for the sanctuary," Jackson said. "These pigs are leading the life of Riley now."

. . .

While living in Stafford in the mid-1980s, Laura saw an ad for potbellied pigs. A few years later, she and Richard purchased Paddy Murphy for $75.

"We didn't know a thing about them," she said. "We thought she'd grow to be the size of a dog."

Instead, she grew to about 200 pounds. While such a surprise apparently causes some people to dump their pets on the side of the road or leave them in the back yard to starve, the Hoyles never entertained such thoughts. They learned how to properly care for their large pet.

When they heard from friends and neighbors about the mistreatment of other pigs, they began rescuing them. Stinky Pig came first, then Shamrock and Daisy. By 1995, they had rescued 22 pigs, a herd too large for their 1½-acre yard.

In February 1999, they obtained nonprofit status and elected a board of directors. A few months later, they moved their growing sanctuary to Culpeper.

There, the pigs live out their years in hog heaven.

"It's nice to have them here because there really isn't any other place for the pigs to go," said Jamie Bennett, director of the Culpeper County Department of Animal Services. "These are very caring and loving people. They say there's somebody for everybody. That includes pigs, too."

The pigs are fed once a day in the summer (about 325 pounds a day) and twice a day in the winter (more than 500 pounds a day). Some are fed by hand, including 10-year-old Rudy. Recuperating from a spinal injury, Rudy is too weak to stand and eat on his own. The Hoyles are outfitting him with a wheelchair to help support his back legs.

"Dedication seems like a small word when describing the Hoyles," said Dr. Tom Massie, owner of Rose Hill Veterinary Practice and the main vet at Mini-Pigs. "Richard gives of himself more than many people do for their own children. If I die and come back a pig, I hope I end up here."

Devotion does have its price. Vet bills run from $500 to $2,000 a month. Along with feed and supplies, the annual budget last year totaled $64,000. When the sanctuary came up short in its fund-raising efforts, the Hoyles had to make up the difference from personal funds.

"When you tell someone you are raising money for an animal sanctuary, they are eager to help," Richard said. "Then you tell them it's a pig sanctuary and the checkbook immediately goes back into the pocketbook."

Because of budget constraints, the Hoyles turn away six pigs a week. That doesn't sit well with the couple, who rarely adopt out animals. Instead, they hope to expand the farm so it can accommodate more. Currently, only six of the 18 acres are being utilized.

Immediate plans call for adding a six-acre pasture and barn at a cost of about $20,000. The Hoyles hope to raise some of the money at Pigstock 2002, an annual educational and social event to be held at the sanctuary Oct. 11-13. The Hoyles also give tours of the sanctuary and visit schools to teach people about animal care.

"It's [fund-raising/education] difficult because I don't think people stop to think of a pig as anything other than a commodity," Richard said. "I was just as ignorant."

He experienced an epiphany soon after buying Paddy Murphy.

"I was cutting up a ham when it hit me that the only difference between Paddy and that piece of meat was a whole lot of luck," he said.

The couple gave up eating meat and today are vegans, or strict vegetarians.

. . .

For a year after Poke-Poke arrived in Culpeper, the pig was so scared of humans that she would drop on her knees, hide her head and scream when approached by humans. But gradually she came to trust the Hoyles, and today enjoys belly rubs, rolling in the mud and devouring dinner.

Many other animals have shown such dramatic improvement. Casey, who was left to die in a barn after a dog attacked her, has recovered after losing an ear and an eye. Yoda, rescued from a petting zoo, is blind but gets around thanks to DotCom, who acts as his seeing-eye pig.

Then there's 9-year-old Clancey, who lost an ear and is still sporting a scar the length of his body. The Hoyles suspect someone tried to skin him when he was a piglet. Now Clancey spends his time snoring in the sunshine.

"Helping these animals gives you such peace of mind," Laura said. "So many people can only see them as food. I don't. I see them as God's creatures."

As sick and injured as some of the pigs are when they arrive, only two adults have died since the Hoyles rescued their first in 1989.

"I had no idea we'd be running a sanctuary, much less one of this size," Richard said. "I never imagined it would become such an all-consuming thing. But I don't regret it. I don't care how hot it is or how cold it gets, I never consider it a chore."

No matter how much they do, though, the Hoyles know it will never be enough.

"In animal rescue, you are never going to win," Richard said. "There's always going to be more. But when I go to bed at night, I know I have done everything I can. I know we've made a difference."

Contact Janet Caggiano at (804) 649-6157
or jcaggiano@timesdispatch.com


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