There are many hungry mouths to feed at the My Lovely Pig Rescue Shelter in Co Kildare. The animals get fed twice a day at 8.30am and 3.30pm.
The pigs appear to have an inner clock or maybe it is just the rumbling in their stomachs. As the clock edges closer to the afternoon feed, the squealing and grunting gets progressively louder. The pigs bang the gates and scrap their hooves off the ground sensing dinner time is approaching. The birds too respond in kind anticipating their own meal time from the scraps of barley and grain mix that are used to feed the pigs. You can hardly hear yourself think over the cacophonous racket.
When all the world was locked down in May 2020 the acclaimed singer-songwriter turned animal rights activist Cathy Davey and sisters Martina and Deborah Kelly started the pig shelter at Coonagh House near Enfield. It is close to where the My Lovely Horse Rescue farm is situated, which was established by them in 2011.
Davey noticed the rising trend of abandoned pet pigs prompted by Instagram and the phenomenon of so-called teacup pigs, which are branded as miniature pigs except they do not stay miniature for long. With no touring on the horizon for her, it was the optimal time to start it.
The shelter originally had 35 pigs, a manageable number, but lately it has grown to 131. The reason for it is the same why so many animal shelters have been inundated with abandoned animals – the Covid-19 lockdown. Many people bought pet pigs during lockdown. They were sold, figuratively and literally, a pig in a poke.
You can hold a newborn piglet in one hand but even the smallest of them grow to 120kg. They need a lot of space. A pig’s instincts to root makes them unsuitable for conventional gardens and impossible for lawns. A simple Google search would suffice to show that you cannot have a pig in the house in the way you can have a cat or a dog, but some buyers don’t bother doing even elemental research.
The problem has accelerated in recent months as multi-generational pig families turn up on their doorstep. Last November 15 kunekune pigs were found abandoned in a forest in Co Cavan. These are one of the smallest breeds of pig and frequently kept as pets. They were brought by Department of Agriculture veterinary inspectors to the shelter. There was nowhere else for them to go. “There’s no pig pound, there’s just us,” Davey says.
Igor, known as Big Daddy, had at least four piglets with a sow who disappeared and those four piglets inbreeded and produced 10 more piglets. By the time they were picked up in Cavan, they were in danger of starvation.
“Their owners probably started off with a boar and a sow. Now we have a triple incestuous family,” said Davey. Poor Igor has not been well so he is yet to be castrated, as all boars are when they enter the rescue, so he is driving himself and the sows who are in heat crazy by banging his head off the fence.
Davey has put her career on hiatus to look after these animals and her affection for them is immediately apparent. She walks into their pens, talks to them, tickles them and rubs their bellies. They are used to having humans around, yet pigs get terrible PR. They are synonymous with dirtiness though they are clean. Far from being ignorant, they are intelligent animals. Neither do sows eat their own farrow despite what James Joyce would have you believe in his famous metaphor about Ireland and its young people.
“This is the dichotomy. People know pigs are really smart and really adorable while eating a bacon sandwich. We are really good at this cognitive dissonance,” she explained. “At the same time we are not going around having them rescued so they can be eaten.” She leads by example by being a vegan.
All of the animals have names, even the piglets who look identical. There is a whiteboard with feeding programmes and a bespoke app for monitoring their progress. There are 16 volunteers, many of who have come from overseas to work in the rescue.
Owners often abandon pigs because they become too big, too unruly or, worst of all, breed unless they are neutered in a timely fashion.
In the barn there is Lily, the porcine equivalent of a teenage mother, who gave birth at just eight months to five surviving piglets. A sow can become sexually mature at five months and is pregnant typically for just over three months. Her black and white farrow are “beautiful and small and cuddly”, says Davey, but brothers and sisters, if they are not neutered, are quite likely to mate and “before you know it you have 15 piglets”.
The ones that have recently sowed are kept under infrared light. They include Flora, an old sow (she’s seven) who has given birth. Sadly she is inbred and only two of her piglets have survived. They are being given lamb’s milk as a supplement. There are other deformed animals in the shelter.
My Lovely Pig Rescue is the only one of its kind in the country. Unlike dogs, cats or horses, rehoming them is very difficult. Pigs are bred for meat and it is problematic to adopt them without a pig herd number from the Department of Agriculture.
For most of the pigs it is the Hotel California of animal shelters. They can never leave. Most people see pigs as a food source not a human companion, says Davey.
“It is much harder to rehome a pig than a dog because people have evolved with dogs. There is more of an understanding of their behaviour than that of pigs, and you have to have a herd number to be compliant with the Department of Agriculture. There’s an awful lot to take on when you take on a pig unless you do loads of research and are really interested in species-specific behaviour. They get very upset when people do not understand their natural behaviour and people are not used to them because they think of pigs in terms of eating them not caring for them.”
Many of the pigs are out in the fields at the moment. It is early in the year to have them outdoors, Davey admits, but the alternative could lead to overcrowding and the weather fortunately has been clement recently. The shelter is overcapacity, but turning animals away is not an option.
“We have the hit the wall now. I’m not really interested in giving up the ghost once we are full. There is a change in the air with people feeling more empathy to animals they had written off as just food animals. The more empathy that comes in the more chance there is of understanding them and that is the only thing that is going to curb this increase in unwanted pigs.”