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
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’