Part III: Hog Heaven
Wild pigs are among the most intelligent animals, native or exotic, in the United States. From pot-bellied pets to feral hogs to the large farm pigs that become the bacon on your plate, Americans have a complex relationship with swine. Even though their impacts are well documented, at least fourteen rescue groups in Florida have committed to rescuing wild and domestic pig populations.
On Labor Day weekend 2014, Alana Rogers finally gave in to the pleas of her daughter. During her first week of kindergarten, her daughter came home sad, explaining that their family was the only one who didn’t have a pet. And fish didn’t count.
Rogers is allergic to dogs, and her daughter is allergic to cats, so Rogers decided to take a different route. She went to a breeder and paid $1,100 for a piglet whom the family named Rocco.
“He pretty much became a member of the family. My daughter really took a liking to him. He liked my sister,” Rogers said. “We ended up getting a second because it’s kind of like potato chips.”
Their second pet pig was a rescue, a piglet named Willow.
Fast forward to six years later, and Rogers volunteers as the Florida representative for the Pig Advocates League, a non-profit organization that works to protect pigs, big and small, through education and advocacy.
Rogers, who says she was never really an “animal person” before, developed a deep sense of empathy for pigs after having them as pets. Rescuing and caring for pigs has become a major part of her life, partly because there is a need for people to help manage abandoned pet pigs, but also because the animals display a surprising level of emotional intelligence.
Wild pigs are among the most intelligent animals, native or exotic, in the United States, according to information from Texas A&M University. A 2019 study found that some parts of pigs brains are so similar to humans that they serve as good models to research human neurological conditions such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s Disease.
“They are very human-like in their emotions,” Rogers said. “They’re smart, but they also know how to manipulate you. I’ve seen pigs I’ve had get very attached to their humans and their people. And anytime they get re-homed, after a bit of time, they can become extremely depressed. I’ve seen pigs cry, literally. Not eat because they’re sad. It wasn’t something that I was expecting.”
From pot-bellied pets to feral hogs to the large farm pigs that become the bacon on your plate, Americans have a complex relationship with swine. Perhaps more than any other animal, pigs occupy a dynamic place in the eyes of humans where they serve as pets, nuisance animals or food, depending on who you ask.
Even though the impacts of feral hogs on Florida lands are well documented, at least fourteen rescue groups have committed to rescuing wild and domestic pig populations across the state, according to the Pig Advocacy League.
The missions of these centers are generally focused on providing support for owners of pet pigs who can no longer care for these complex animals, but a few centers have spearheaded efforts to place feral swine into human care.
‘Feral Means Homeless’
“Feral means homeless,” said Christal Ellard, founder and president of In Loving Swineness Sanctuary.
Through her pig rescue center in Escambia County, Ellard hopes to work with Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and other management agencies in the state to tackle the feral pig problem.
Ellard has big dreams for her rescue center, including an eco-tourism component where visitors could stay on site and interact with the pigs. She also has plans to build concrete domes on a piece of land in north Escambia County that could survive hurricane-force winds. But finding funding for the rescue of non-meat pigs, such as smaller breeds of domestic pigs known as mini pigs, has proved to be difficult.
“When I mention mini pigs or as soon as I say the word feral, people laugh,” she said.
Though the majority of their rescue residents are abandoned pot-bellied pigs, she has taken a few feral hogs into her rescue center as well.
“Right now, we only have two. We have Alf and Paddington,” Ellard said.
Alf was taken to the center after his mother and siblings were shot. Paddington arrived there after he was caught in Okaloosa County and placed in an animal control center.
“Believe it or not, if you came over here, Alf wants his belly rubbed just as much as a mini pig,” said Christal Ellard, founder and president of In Loving Swineness Sanctuary.
In Loving Swineness is very selective about who they allow to adopt their rescued pigs (Ellard said the center has a particularly low adoption rate), but she would consider allowing these formerly feral hogs to be adopted if she found the right home for them.
“Believe it or not, if you came over here, Alf wants his belly rubbed just as much as a mini pig,” she said.
Just like Rogers, Ellard happened upon her love for pigs by chance after taking in a group of seven mini pigs that were found in the wetlands of Indian Bayou in Santa Rosa County.
“It was supposed to be six, turned into 11 and now it’s 57,” Ellard said.
Ellard was raised by her grandfather who was a game warden, farmer and passionate conservationist. She felt qualified to take care of the pigs, but she wasn’t quite prepared for how much she would learn about their intelligence, their sense of free will and their apparent grief when one of the group passes away.
“The first time I saw that, I was pretty much like, ‘what is going on?’ I didn’t understand it,” Ellard said. “But at that moment I realized there is something way more different about these things than I’d ever known. This is not what the farm girl in me was ever taught.”
As wild pigs root around searching for food across the nation, their thick snouts destroy an estimated $1.5 billion in crops each year. Trapping, aerial gunnery and dog hunting are just a few ways the feral animals are removed and ultimately euthanized by state and federal agencies. But some Floridians take hog management into their own hands. For Amos Townsend, hunting hogs is a means…
Florida is likely home to more than estimated 750,000 feral pigs. To cool off, they dig muddy wallows that serve as the perfect breeding grounds for mosquitoes and, in large numbers, can change the hydrology of the landscape. They carry dangerous pathogens that can be passed to humans, pets, livestock and other wildlife. But methods to manage them are not so clear cut.
Photo Credits Alana Rogers and Christal Ellard