Pigs4Ever info@pigs4ever.com   |   352.589.1702

Hog Heaven

"I wouldn't miss it, even though it is an election year," says Kelley, running for her third term as county commissioner.

When Kelley got her first potbellied pig, in 1996, she had been a Calvert commissioner for two years and was already acquiring a reputation as an iconoclast. She is often the only dissenting voice among the five commissioners, and her outspokenness, frugality and strong commitment to preserving Calvert's rural way of life have endeared her to many in this rapidly growing county of 74,500 southeast of Prince George's County.

The fact that she's added potbellied pigs to the menagerie at her six-acre farm in Owings--also home to stray cats, chickens, ducks, a turtle and a guinea pig named Pongo--has only added to her popularity.

Of course, that three of the pigs live indoors has sometimes been hard to explain, especially that day when the ladies from Annmarie Garden, the county-owned botanical and sculpture garden, came to tea.

"After about an hour into the meeting, Precious and Gretchen--who had been in the family room--decided to come in and see what was going on. Needless to say, that pretty much brought the meeting to a halt," Kelley says, and guffaws.

She has a nice guffaw. She also smokes, has a head of blond Ginger Rogers hair and favors stirrup pants and flats.

She's taking Franklin, all 90 pounds of him, to the pig congress because he is the youngest and most agile of her pigs.

Up close, Franklin does not disappoint. He has bristly black hair, a moist, constantly moving snout, a wrinkled face, dainty hooves and a straight tail, which he sometimes wags, fetchingly, in a circular twirl. He walks on a leash and grunts with each step, like an arthritic old man.

Before she and Franklin hit the road, Kelley, 59, puts Franklin's pig supplement and oats into Ziploc bags, labeling them "meals" and "bedtime snack," and packs his sippy-cup of water and favorite rainbow afghan. Then Franklin gets a bath on the back porch, squealing and wiggling in protest as Kelley wipes him with a soapy washcloth.

"You're a filthy-dirty boy," she tells him. She starts rinsing Franklin off with cold water, unleashing a louder chorus of grunts, wheezes and moans.

"I've been wanting to call the plumber out to install hot and cold spouts for this porch," she says, wiping out his ears.

She wouldn't mind spending the money. This is, after all, a woman who built an air-conditioned replica of her own house--a gray gingerbread Victorian--for Freddie and Flossie, her two outdoor pigs.

Kelley finishes cleaning Franklin and turns off the water. After drying him off with a towel, she leads him back into the house.

This is the fifth year for the Pet Pig Congress, which is organized by Anne Savage, a Boyertown, Pa., special education aide. Savage first became interested in potbellied pigs in 1991, when she was searching for a house pet that would not bother her fiance, who had severe pet allergies. She ended up with Arnold, who now weighs over 300 pounds and is with her still. He fared better than the fiance.

"I got rid of the guy and kept the pig," Savage quips.

Savage organizes the conference for pet pig owners around the country--anywhere from 40 to 125 have shown up in years past--hungry for more information about the feeding habits, health and maintenance of pigs. Such information sharing is necessary, Savage says, because potbellied pigs are relatively new to this country and owners are still learning so much about them.

The potbellied pigs, descended from feral pigs in Vietnam, were first introduced in North America by a Canadian breeder in 1985.

They were the first pigs to be bred as house pets in this country and are supposed to stay smaller--usually weighing anywhere from 50 to 200 pounds--than a farm pig. A farm pig can grow to more than 1,000 pounds.

In the initial marketing frenzy, breeders dubbed potbellied pigs the "yuppie puppy" of the 1990s and claimed that the animals were super-intelligent, did not smell, or cause allergic reactions like cats and dogs, and were easily trainable and housebroken. In those heated days, owners would pay up to $25,000 for a purebred pig, and hunky actors like Luke Perry and George Clooney bought pigs for house pets.

Soon there were potbellied pigs all over the place, though exact numbers are hard to come by. Gayle Spears, of the International Potbellied Pig Registry, estimates that there are 35,000 to 40,000 purebred potbellied pigs in three registries in the United States and perhaps 40,000 more unregistered pigs.

In fact, backyard breeders have so saturated the market that potbellied pigs can now be adopted or found for free.

Many pet owners initially charmed by their pig's "Babe"-like cuteness can feel overwhelmed when the tiny tater tot of an animal morphs into something huge and hairy. The pig's special health needs or aggressive behavior can be taxing. And some owners have to give their pigs up when they run afoul of local zoning laws barring swine.

Animal shelters have been inundated, and potbellied pig sanctuaries have cropped up all over the country to house abandoned and unwanted pigs. At least some, pig rescue operators fear, have been butchered by their owners for dinner. In Florida alone, there are at least 20 sanctuaries, and all of them are full, according to Barbara Baker, of Ruskin, Fla., who runs a Web site, the Duchess Fund (www.duchessfund.org), devoted to the medical problems of potbellied pigs. It is named in honor of one of her own pigs, who died of liver disease in 1999.

"These are not pets for everybody," says Phyllis Battoe, who runs the Pig Pals Sanctuary for more than 65 pigs in Worden, Ill. "These are pets for special people. They take a higher degree of commitment . . . You don't just decide to do it on the spur of the moment."

Battoe is holding court Friday evening in the hospitality suite of the Comfort Inn in Pottstown, where she, Savage and other pig owners have gathered around a faux colonial table, exclaiming over "baby" photos, eating off a cheese and deviled egg tray and drinking cocktails. Someone just now is mixing Battoe a fuzzy navel.

Battoe rarely gets a vacation from her rescued pigs, in part be-cause, she says, they resent it when she leaves them alone for too long.

Two of her house pigs don't like her daughter, who baby-sits while Battoe is gone, she says.

"When I get home I'm in deep trouble," she says, a little glum. "They ignore me. They pretend I'm not there. That could go on for days."

She is a tall, rangy woman with short silver-blond hair, speaking through a haze of cigarette smoke.

"We had one who was neutered, and I happened to be the one who was holding him. He never spoke to me again," she continues. Pigs are different, she says. A pig demands respect. You don't tell a pig to move, she says, you ask.

"I don't know why we love 'em. I've never been able to figure out that one," she says. "The pigs just stole my heart."

Kelley, perpetually late, swoops in with Franklin in the "proper pigmobile," as she calls her red Dodge Caravan, well after 10 that evening.

The next day finds her catching up with friends before the opening session of the congress.

Attendees sit at rows of tables, with packets of informational material before them, including pamphlets like "How to Avoid Plant Poisons." Little pink pig slippers stuffed with carnations serve as table decor. Here and there, the missile-shaped bulks of real pigs--some black, some white, some pink--sit quietly at their owners' feet.

In the opening session of the congress, Kathy Sperduto, an animal trainer from Hackettstown, N.J., demonstrates how she works with her pet pig, Felicity.

"Taaaaaaaawk to your pigs. Use your voice," Sperduto counsels. Pigs are easier to train than dogs, she says, as she runs Felicity through her tricks--sit, roll over--in the front of the room.

Kelley can attest to this. Franklin can play the piano, a trick he learned in nothing flat, poking his snout on the keys of a Kawai electric keyboard in return for a pig treat.

But today Kelley has other worries. She wants to ask Sperduto how she can keep Franklin from biting Precious. "If he knows I'm watching he won't do anything. Goes by her 10 times, nothin'. The minute I take my eyes off him--bam!--he bites her in the butt."

Pig people are fond of saying that pigs have the intellectual capacity of a 3-year-old, but Bruce Lawhorn, a professor at Texas A&M University and a swine veterinarian for the Texas Cooperative Extension Service, says it's more accurate to consider them the smartest of the barnyard animals.

Pig owners say their pets are constantly behaving in ways that surprise them.

Barbara Baker, who runs the potbellied pig medical Web site, has four pigs, and claims one of them, Lady Lee, knows the alphabet. (The pig learned her letters by studying laminated 8x10 cards, Baker says. If presented with the "C" and "G" cards and asked to pick the "C," Lady Lee will use her snout to point to the correct letter.)

One pig owner once called the site's 24-hour hot line, Baker recalls, because she didn't understand why her pig would throw a tantrum every Saturday and Sunday morning from 8:30 to 9 a.m.

"Well, come to find out the Flintstones were on every weekday morning and the pig would watch them in the family room. And when the show wasn't on Saturday and Sunday morning, the pig would scream," Baker says. The counselors suggested that the pig owner might consider taping the show for the weekends.

Kelley recalls that one day when Precious was little, she was sleeping next to an open door that was letting in a cold draft. Precious got up, closed the door and lay back down.

"I never thought I'd get a pig," Kelley says. "I just sort of blundered into it." She is lying back on the pillows of the king-size bed in her Comfort Inn suite, smoking a cigarette. Franklin is up from his afternoon nap. He has been watching Animal Planet, but now he is exploring the room.

"No, no, leave that alone," she says, waving him away from the electric wall socket. "He's snootering around and checking things out," she says. "He hasn't even eaten any drywall this week."

Kelley was inspecting a construction site for an abused persons shelter one day in 1996 when one of the construction workers beckoned her over and showed her a tiny pig in a box. Kelley took her home, naming her Precious.

Precious was so small at first that Kelley could tuck her in her purse and sail off to shop at the Prince Frederick Kmart.

Gretchen was picked up by the Tri-County Animal Shelter in Hughesville a year later, and officials, not knowing what to do with her, called Kelley. Her outside pigs, Freddie and Flossie, were found running wild behind the Food Lion. Then there was Franklin, picked up along the road about a year ago in a terrible rainstorm. The local Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals chapter called Kelley.

Now practically everybody in Calvert County knows of Kelley's penchant for pigs. She's burnished the image herself by hosting a "pignic" on the courthouse lawn and inviting Leroy, the Williamses' pig, and a few others. The pignic was headline news in the local papers.

Her husband, Tom Kelley, a special education teacher at Gwynn Park High School in Brandywine, has borne the pig invasion with grace.

"I would never want to have any more pigs, but I'm not saying we'll never have any more pigs. I don't know what's going to happen," he says. "I'm not the one who has pigs in my family. I'm the person who's married to the woman who has pigs, and my job as husband is to make my wife happy. If she needs another pig to be happy, then she's going to get another pig."

The couple, who have two adult daughters, always dreamed of living on a farm when they were growing up in Prince George's County--Tom in New Carrollton and Linda in Seat Pleasant. After they married, they moved first to a farm in Bowie, and then south to Calvert County in 1982 when Bowie became too built-up.

"Keep Calvert Country"--a popular political slogan--has been one of Kelley's top priorities as commissioner.

She was first elected in 1994, and then handily won reelection in 1998 campaigning with a slate of other Republicans who pledged to slow the county's rampant development. In the last election, she was the top vote-getter in the county.

Her blunt, sarcastic and often bitingly funny style has won her both fierce loyalists and fierce detractors.

Big commercial developers don't like her because they think she's dogmatic and anti-growth. Neither do some of Calvert's old-timers, who dismiss anyone who wasn't living there before developers began buying up tobacco farms and turning them into tract housing for hordes of D.C. commuters.

"The old way of life has changed," says retired Calvert Circuit Court Judge Perry G. Bowen Jr., whose family has lived in the county since 1647. "You've got a population which doesn't make its living in Calvert County. Most go 'up the road' and come back to Calvert County to sleep."

Bowen himself no longer sleeps in Calvert. He decamped to King George, Va., when his farm grew too expensive to maintain. But his change of residence doesn't stop him from taking aim at Kelley.

She is, Bowen says with barely disguised disdain, "one of these people who's moved in from somewhere else and is now an authority on Calvert County."

Kelley counters that she works hard to appease the old guard resistant to change and newcomers demanding better transit and bigger schools--not always an easy balance in a county where the population grew 45 percent in the last decade.

"People move here because they can buy a bigger plot of land than in other suburbs and because they want to have a garden, or keep animals," she says. "That's why we moved here, for that quality of life and green open space and so we can have pets and animals. Particularly pigs."

The Comfort Inn has taken on the air of the movie "Best in Show" for the weekend. There's a dog show going on in nearby Ludwigs Corner this weekend, so in addition to the pigs, there are Pomeranians and poodles and Akitas wandering through the motel lobby.

Linda Ellex, the inn's sales manager, has managed to maintain her humor behind the front desk despite her ark of guests and the fact that she is hugely pregnant.

She says that the other hotel guests have not complained about the pigs but allows that they are generally surprised to see them.

"They usually say, 'Now I've seen it all,' " Ellex says.

In the ballroom Saturday evening, the pig congress is feasting on roast beef, chicken, potatoes and little pastries. (There's not a pork chop--or pork eater--to be found.) Later there will be an auction of pig-related paraphernalia with proceeds benefiting Battoe's pig sanctuary.

Dinner topics at one table include:

(1) A discussion of the bruises you get on your thighs from your pig's hooves,

when he or she wants to sit on your lap;

(2) Pig depression (one pig was deep in the dumps until his owners bought a

guinea pig to be his playmate);

(3) Couples having babies.

This last is kind of a sore subject, because there is some anecdotal evidence on the Internet and elsewhere that some potbellied pigs have reacted jealously to sharing their home with a new baby.

Nevertheless, Michele and James Propes, one of the younger couples in attendance, plan to put their pig, Hamilton, to the test.

"We want to have a human child soon," says Michele, 31, a craft business owner from Simpson, Pa.

Kelley thinks of her five pigs as children.

"It's funny," she says. "They all have distinct personalities. It's like if you had five kids and someone asked you which was your favorite, you couldn't say. You

really just can't choose between them. You wouldn't want to give up any of 'em."

During the auction, Franklin wanders in, trailing his purple leash. Hands reach out to pet him. He disappears under one of the white tablecloths.

"Phyllis, what does he have under there?" someone asks.

"I believe a little cake," Battoe stage-whispers.

Only his tail is visible. It twirls.

Annie Gowen is a Washington Post staff writer.

© 2002 The Washington Post Company


Back to News Articles