The skinny on skinny pigs — they rock!
Rare pets have become great friends with Able Living residents
Bald as a cue ball. Of course. Hairless as a dolphin. Sure. Glabrous as a bikini wax or the soles of one’s feet. Fair enough.
But fur-free as a guinea pig? Their colourful and often luxurious silky coats are among the defining characteristics of guinea pigs, aren’t they?
You haven’t met Sheldon and Spencer. They’re what are called skinny pigs.
I guess technically you could call them “mutants.” Skinny pigs — i.e. hairless guinea pigs — originated in 1978 in the Armand Frappier lab in Montreal, as a spontaneous genetic mutation.
In the 1980s, scientists latched on to the hairless variety for breeding as lab animals, chiefly in dermatology studies, but in the late ’90s skinnies began to emerge in a new role as house pet. They’re still rare but that did not deter Shannon Barry, animal lover and emergency nurse at St. Joseph’s.
“I saw a picture once online,” says Shannon, “and I just fell in love.” She would talk about her new discovery, especially to husband Symon, and so, one birthday, Sheldon appeared as a birthday present. Symon came through.
“It wasn’t so much a surprise,” she tells me, “as a victory.” After a year, Shannon found Spencer (Spencer Reid from “Criminal Minds” — “smart but quirky”), as company for Sheldon (after Sheldon Cooper from “The Big Bang Theory”). Sheldon needed a friend, as skinny pigs are famously social and affectionate.
It’s one reason they make such great pets. Also, they’re not skittish, either with people or other animals, as Shannon’s big beautiful chocolate lab Sasha can attest. The skinnies aren’t one bit afraid of her. (Maybe because their mutant ancestors were used to “labs.” Groan.)
“A dog can bark and they won’t even flinch,” Shannon says. “And kids can pass them around.”
The same qualities that make them exceptional pets make them wonderful visitors, so before long, after taking them into her home, Shannon began taking them out to visit senior centres, kids at summer camps, adults at facilities like Able Living Services and SPCA pet workshops.
I caught up with Sheldon, Spencer and Shannon at Able Living on Trinity Church Road.
“He’s cute, he’s warm, he likes eating,” says Heather Whitaker, explaining the charms of Spencer as he sits snugly in her lap, feeding on some radicchio leaves out of Heather’s hand. They fit so well into laps; perfect for those in wheelchairs.
This is my first personal audience with a skinny pig and, I must say at this point, baldness can go a few ways. Dreadful as in skinheads and James Bond villains; straddling a line between mildly unpleasant and beau-laid cuteness, as in Vin Diesel and Sphynx cats; or adorable as in baby pigs and Caillou. Sheldon and Spencer? Irresistible.
“I’ve got my best buddy here,” says Alan Kingston, stroking Sheldon, feeding him parsley.
I give Sheldon a pet. He’s got a cute, pokey little body, surprisingly warm. Skinny pigs have higher body temperatures, to make up for lack of hair. They also eat more, again, to keep up heat. In fact, “skinny pig” is a bit of a misnomer. They tend to be plumper and larger than haired ones; they just look skinnier.
“They’re so friendly,” says Jason Stewart. He always comes by when they visit, to get his fix of skinny pig affection.
They’re such a hit that Shannon’s appearances with Sheldon and Spencer take up most of her free time. She doesn’t mind.
When not visiting, she’s dressing the two up with adorable costumes and props for the pictures she takes. They’re featured in her 2017 calendar, pictorially highlighting holidays like St. Patrick’s Day and Easter.
“We’ve had dogs, cats, rabbits, even rats come in,” says Colleen Connolly, volunteer co-ordinator with Able Living. “But the skinny pigs are unique. Most have never seen one before. Everyone smiles when they hold them, and they rock them like babies.”
Able Living resident Alan Kingston feeds Sheldon, the hairless guinea pig — or “skinny pig” — during a visit.
Above: Sheldon and Spencer pose for an Easter calendar photo. Left: The hairless pair are decked out for Canada Day.