Pigs are like tod­dlers – ex­cept they never grow up

PORCINE PETS Matt Why­man thought he was get­ting two per­fect lit­tle toy pork­ers. But soon, they were rul­ing every as­pect of his life

The Sunday Telegraph - Sunday - - Country Matters - By Matt Why­man (HarperCollins) is avail­able for £9.99 plus p&p from books.tele­graph.co.uk

When my wife floated the idea of tak­ing on two pigs as pets, she de­scribed what sounded like a uni­corn for our times. “They’re not just or­di­nary pigs,” Emma told me. “They’re minip­igs.”

This was nearly 10 years ago, be­fore the mini – or the mi­cropig – briefly be­came the celebrity pet of choice. In­for­ma­tion about this seem­ingly mag­i­cal an­i­mal was sparse. The in­ter­net served up pic­tures of tiny pork­ers peep­ing out of teacups, while Emma tracked down a breeder who cor­rectly in­formed her that pigs were friendly crea­tures that thrived on com­pan­ion­ship.

As we had four chil­dren, she be­lieved that bring­ing a toy pair into the house­hold would make no dif­fer­ence to our lives what­so­ever.

Butch and Roxi ar­rived in a cat bas­ket, per­fectly pig-shaped and honk­ing at high pitch. My first thought was to check their bel­lies for a bat­tery com­part­ment. They just seemed too good to be true.

Four years later, when Butch and Roxi left in a horse­box for a new life clear­ing un­der­growth on a sheep farm, I had be­come an ex­pert in a sub­ject purely by learn­ing from a string of mis­takes. I was older, greyer, and wise to the fact that there’s no such thing as a minipig.

What we had were two bog­stan­dard mon­grels with some small breed genes in the mix, and size is rel­a­tive here. A pot-bel­lied va­ri­ety or kunekune might be con­sid­ered pe­tite for a pig, but an adult of ei­ther kind can stand waist- height to a hu­man and weigh in at more than 200 ki­los (31 stone).

It was shortly af­ter Butch and Roxi’s ar­rival that the gap be­tween fan­tasy and re­al­ity opened up. They only stayed mini for about a month, dur­ing which time the breeder went out of busi­ness, but many other fac­tors also came to test me.

De­spite the pigs’ in­creas­ing pres­ence on the sofa, Emma and the chil­dren adored them. From where I was sit­ting – some­times on the floor if there wasn’t enough space – they drove me to dis­trac­tion.

Of course, ev­ery­one knows a young pet can be test­ing. Dogs need to learn you’re the boss, while cats take a while to work out how to ma­nip­u­late you to their ad­van­tage. Pigs are a lot like tod­dlers. They can be gen­tle, in­quis­i­tive souls and then break into a tantrum when things don’t go their way.

Un­like chil­dren, how­ever, they don’t grow out of this be­hav­iour. It just be­comes more force­ful over time, and in­creas­ingly out of place in a do­mes­tic en­vi­ron­ment.

Butch and Roxi didn’t live un­der the same roof as us for long. Pigs are pur­pose-built to dig about in the soil, seek­ing out roots and min­er­als, not to flop about in front of the fire wait­ing for the lot­tery re­sults.

When they switched to life in the gar­den, they were the size of Labradors. I had as­sumed they were fully grown, which makes me laugh when I look back. I hemmed off a roomy en­clo­sure for them un­der an oak tree and adapted the shed into sleep­ing quar­ters, but it was never enough.

Keep­ing pigs re­quires enough land so they can be switched from one plot to an­other. This al­lows the ground to re­cover from re­lent­less ex­ca­va­tions that can leave it look­ing like it’s been tar­geted by a drunk on a ram­page in a dig­ger. The only way we could ser­vice this need, as I re­solved one sad day, was to sac­ri­fice the whole of the gar­den.

Dur­ing the years in which we strug­gled with life as pig keep­ers, Butch and Roxi staged a break­out into the vil­lage, dug up the re­mains of a much-loved fam­ily cat and once got ham­mered on fer­mented ap­ples. They bel­lowed for break­fast be­fore dawn, prompt­ing me to sprint out into the slop in slip­pers to feed them, and pro­duced so much dung that the cloud of flies over our house in sum­mer could’ve been in­ter­preted as a sign of the End Times.

De­spite the never-end­ing chal­lenges, Emma and I did our level best to put their wel­fare first. Even­tu­ally, how­ever, some­thing had to give. We didn’t run out of love for our minip­igs. We just ran out of space.

In many ways, Butch and Roxi re­mained with us long af­ter their de­par­ture. We turfed the land and re­built bridges with our neigh­bours, and as the mem­o­ries soft­ened I found my­self left with an in­ter­est in what makes pigs tick. It was Win­ston Churchill who dis­cov­ered an equal in look­ing one in the eye. Hav­ing been out­wit­ted by two at every turn, I set out on a jour­ney of dis­cov­ery and en­light­en­ment; one that re­sulted in a book, The Un­ex­pected Ge­nius of Pigs, and a new­found re­spect for a crea­ture that had come close to crush­ing my soul.

Armed with the wis­dom of hind­sight and bit­ter ex­pe­ri­ence, I vis­ited a lead­ing ex­pert in pig cog­ni­tion. Pro­fes­sor Michael Mendl at Bris­tol Ve­teri­nary School is the kind of aca­demic whose care­fully con­trolled in­quiries also sound like enor­mous fun.

In their field of study, ul­ti­mately aim­ing to im­prove wel­fare stan­dards in farm­ing, Prof Mendl and his col­leagues are cel­e­brated for demon­strat­ing that pigs can be sneaky.

To prove it, they re­leased a pig into a maze where food was hid­den. Once the pig had found the food, they added a dom­i­nant pig, which duly fol­lowed the in­formed pig to the food and then shoved it out of the way to stuff its face.

So far, so selfish. But next time, the lit­tle one led the big one astray in the maze be­fore scut­tling back to eat. It’s a de­light­ful demon­stra­tion of pig smarts, I think, and one of many the pro­fes­sor shared with me when paint­ing a por­trait of their pri­vate world.

Pigs aren’t just canny. They are whip-smart, so­cia­ble, in­ven­tive and supremely sin­gle-minded. Their con­cept of fam­ily is very dif­fer­ent to ours, and though one boar over­sees a harem of sows and their off­spring, ul­ti­mately the girls rule the roost. They build nests like birds – though sadly not in trees – sing to their young and dis­play as much char­ac­ter as we do, much of which I dis­cov­ered on spend­ing time with a hill farmer on the Welsh border.

Wendy Scu­d­amore is so pas­sion­ate about pigs that she’s cre­ated a porcine par­adise. Sows wan­der freely, of­ten sleep­ing un­der hedges, and greet her cheer­ily when we hike across her fields and pad­docks. Gen­er­a­tions of her pigs have given rise to sto­ries of heart­break, hu­mour, high drama, loy­alty and love.

Where my wife and I went wrong, Roxi, left, and Butch soon out­grew the house and were ban­ished to the gar­den buy­ing in with­out due dili­gence, Wendy does ev­ery­thing right. She has the space, and also the abil­ity to level with a pig and ap­pre­ci­ate a host of charm­ing qual­i­ties we over­look.

I started this ad­ven­ture re­luc­tantly. I fin­ished it as a fan of an an­i­mal that’s larger than life, turned mine up­side down, and can teach us a great deal about our­selves.

‘The pigs dug up a much-loved old cat and got ham­mered on fer­mented ap­ples’

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