Jill Chen and her family do not live on a farm. They do not even live in a house with a lot of outside space. Despite a city bylaw banning them, she has chickens. And now she has a pig.
Not a Yorkshire or a Berkshire or any of those breeds we eat. Not one of those massive pigs that were so popular a few years back when George Clooney owned one and before people realized that 300 lb. of hog did not make a good housemate.
Man’s new best friend is a smaller version of those same Vietnamese pot-bellied pigs, called the micro-mini or teacup pig, bred to grow to just 30 to 50 lb. “We are thrilled and delighted to welcome dear little Henry into our family,” Chen wrote on her blog, freestylefarm.ca, last August. “At eight weeks he weighs six pounds,” she reported. “We were all a little nervous about getting a house pig . . . what have we done? What if he’s awful to live with?”
But after just six days with Henry, now 20 lb., her family was “smitten with this chubby little coarse-haired boy.”
Chen lives a five-minute subway ride from downtown, with numerous Starbucks in the neighbourhood. The backyard of her Toronto home is 50 feet by 60 feet. So why would she get a pig?
“They are so cute,” she says. “That was what drew me to getting one. I just looked around on the Internet to find a breeder nearby. And I knew it would be something different and new.”
Twice a day Henry gets a half a cup of grain mixed with water to make a slop. For lunch, he gets a fresh salad. But he’s not fussy, and happily gobbles up the fruit and vegetable scraps.
Henry was litter trained by the breeder, but Chen taught him to use the walk-in shower in the master bathroom. “With my dog, we go for a walk. With Henry, he relieves himself in the shower.”
When Henry is outside in the backyard, he does her landscaping, feeding off the hedges and grass. His yard waste is used as fertilizer for the garden.
“They are so smart,” says Chen. “They bond with the people who feed them and are loyal.” In the warm weather, he stays outside. In winter, he is definitely an indoor pig. During a trip to the cottage at Christmas, Henry did not like his first brush with snow. “He will stand by the door and scream and cry and whine until you let him in,” he says, “but he refuses to wear anything constricting.” And the squealing can be so loud, it’s deafening. “When a pig has a meltdown, it’s worse than a three-year-old. The noise is louder than a jet taking off.”
The first couple of days with the piglet were hard. “He let out ear-piercing screams that would go on for minutes. It was so loud that the kids were sent running for cover.” The piglet was weaned from its mother at five or six weeks and neutered before Chen brought him home.
The piglet was popular with their urban friends and their kids. “Everyone had to come see him. It’s like having a baby. We had all the children in their classes come and even the teacher.” Henry was not exactly an impulse purchase. He cost $2,500, and Chen had to wait a year to get him. She knows keeping a pig in the city is illegal, but says, “What’s the big deal? There are people who have 20 cats in their houses. And Henry is quieter and smaller than many dogs.”
Chen ordered her micro-mini pig from Our Little Flock, “breeder of rare miniature pets” located near Stratford, Ont. The founder, Jaime Neeb, is well aware that most cities do not allow pigs of any size or shape to live in dwellings. “Some of these bylaws are so out of date,” she says. “They were created decades ago, when pigs were 100 lb. or more. But now they can be bred to be between 30 to 50 lb. With genetics and breeding, they are great house pets. A lot of people don’t know that they are such affectionate animals, smarter than dogs, hypoallergenic, easy to train and they don’t need hour-long walks.”
The people who inquire about her micro-minis are “of all ages and all walks of life.” However, she does caution people that pigs easily gain weight. And, yes, she is selling to city people. “The people who call and put down deposits are not farmers, that’s for sure. But I make sure I ask them if they’ve checked out their city bylaws.” Neeb recently had a customer in Thunder Bay, Ont., who got a letter of exemption from the city to keep her micro-mini. “The city didn’t even know about the laws when it came to pigs as pets, but they gave them the temporary letter of exemption and they may periodically stop by to check on the pig.” Like Chen, her argument is, “if you can have a Great Dane, then why not a little pig?” She thinks people want micro-mini pigs because they are “unusual” and she sets her prices high to reduce impulse buys. Also, in an effort to not contribute to the population of unwanted pets, she has all her pigs spayed or neutered. Potential buyers must fill out a form, explaining what their home, job, working hours and family are like, as well as if they are financially able to provide for the animal, and if they have access to a fenced-in yard. She only sells to city folk if they have a backup plan, a safe place they can send the pig if they are caught breaking a bylaw.
Susan Morris founded Snooters Farm Animal Sanctuary, a hobby farm in Durham Region outside Toronto. She rescued her first pig, named Valentine, 14 years ago. “Not knowing much about pigs I began to do research on their care,” she writes on her business’s website. “I found out these very intelligent, sensitive creatures are bought and abandoned at an alarming rate. People buy the little bundles of joy shaped like a pig and when they grow to their normal size of 150 lb. plus, they are discarded like yesterday’s garbage. Sometimes these ‘beloved pets’ even end up at slaughter auctions and are sold for mere dollars.”
When asked about the growing number of city dwellers getting pigs as pets she is unequivocal. “They are breaking the law.” She has a few pigs she’s taken in, and a friend is fostering one rescued from an apartment on the 11th floor of a high rise in downtown Hamilton. A man called about a pig, then six years old and morbidly obese, that belonged to his son. His son had moved in with his girlfriend and left the pet behind. “It’s ridiculous,” she says. “As much as I love pigs, they are pigs.”
She also detests the terms micro-mini and teacup, which were coined by breeders. “People think they’re buying a pig that will not grow heavier than 40 lb. but then they do grow to 100 lb. and the owners no longer want them. You can’t guarantee how big or heavy a pig is going to be.” The problem is the breeders are not experts in genetics, and so they select pigs that are small and hope that there are no linebackers among the offspring. Prospective buyers are sometimes shown the parents of the piglets, but Morris says they can be youngsters. “Pigs are not full grown until they are four years old. Many pigs they show as adult breeders are under one year old.”
Linda Bowen, owner of Wee Little Pigs in Victoria, says her mini-pigs are most in demand in Ontario and she ships them east via WestJet to mostly female customers. “They all wanted ponies and now they all want little piggies,” she says. “A pig is so endearing and they are so intelligent. With a dog, you can throw a stick to them over and over, but with a pig you do it twice and they’re like, ‘Really?’ ” But she says they are not for everyone. “They are like four-year-olds. Don’t show them anything you don’t want them to know about. They can be mischievous and manipulate you.” She says people need to do their homework and not overfeed them. She sold only one to a schoolteacher in a major city because he had a backup plan—a family member’s farm. “They really do bond so strongly with their owners, and if they get caught and taken away, a pig can literally die of a broken heart.”
She would like to see city bylaws changed, as they did in Quebec City, to allow pet pigs. “The worst thing a pig can do is chew on a neighbours’ lawn. They don’t chase kids on bicycles or the mailman. My hope is that pigs can be vindicated.”
As for Chen, while she’s not exactly hiding Henry, she doesn’t take him out. “He doesn’t like his harness, so we’re working on that.” She does plan on taking him for walks. Next on Chen’s wish list? A miniature cow.