Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations
KPBS Evening Edition

The Huge Myth Behind Micro Pigs

Mini Pigs Alphie and Ozzy graze artificial turf for oatmeal flakes in Santee on Nov. 20, 2020.
Maya Trabulsi
Mini Pigs Alphie and Ozzy graze artificial turf for oatmeal flakes in Santee on Nov. 20, 2020.

It’s a warm day in Santee as Brittany Whissel casts handfuls of oatmeal flakes onto the artificial turf. She’s waiting for the vet to arrive for a house call, and her two mini pot-bellied pigs are busy doing what pigs love to do — root for goodies.

Looking at the size of these pigs, it’s hard to imagine that there is anything “mini” or “micro” about them. In 2012, Whissel fell for a big lie.

The Huge Myth Behind Micro Pigs
Listen to this story by Maya Trabulsi.

“I thought a mini pig was going to be something that was going to be like a teacup dog, something that was going to be smaller, that could fit in your lap, that you could hold all the time,” Whissel said.

She found a breeder online and paid $2500 for her first micro mini pig, Penelope. Whissel said the breeder had her come at night and didn’t allow access to see the parents.

“She had said that there was no lighting in her barn or the pigs were all sleeping, so there’s just a couple of things that are red flags now,” she said.

The breeder gave her feeding instructions that, had she followed them, would have starved the young pig. “To feed her tablespoons of feed. And to slowly increase it, but never by much.”

The Huge Myth Behind Micro Pigs

Underfeeding is a common strategy among unscrupulous breeders to keep pigs small. But they grow for at least 3 years. Whissel was told that by one year of age, Penelope would be 10 pounds, and by the time she was fully grown, she would be no more than 20 to 30 pounds. By the time Penelope died of heart disease in 2019, she weighed 167 pounds.

Whissel found others who had also unknowingly bought mini pigs, thinking they were going to stay small. She started Penelope’s Purpose Sanctuary in 2015 to offer rescue and rehabilitation to pigs, many of whom were abandoned because of their size. The sanctuary was always at capacity and Whissel believes social media perpetuated the problem.

“You just see all these cute videos of these little piglets doing fun things in their homes. And now people are seeing, oh, pigs aren’t farm animals, pigs can live in homes,” Whissel said.

DECEPTIVE MARKETING

Exotic Animal Veterinarian Dr. Lynsey Rosen pulls into the long driveway at Whissel’s house in her state-of-the-art mobile clinic. Her practice, Shiloh Veterinary Clinic, is based in Los Angeles and serves Los Angeles and other parts of Southern California.

She is here to take x-rays of Ozzy’s heart. Because he came from the same breeder as Penelope, and was born to the same parents, Rosen takes images of his heart every 6 months to make sure he doesn’t suffer from the same congenital heart defect that killed her.

Rosen said while mini pigs do exist when compared to huge production pigs, some breeders are dishonest about what they’re actually selling. One breeder’s website that charges up to $3500 for ‘breeder quality micro mini’ pigs it claims will be 20-30 pounds, fully grown.

“They either are just blatantly lying, and the pigs get a lot bigger, or they're telling people not to feed them, or the pigs have some horrible genetic problem,” Rosen said. “The smallest adult pigs we see are like 80 pounds, they're still not 30 pounds.”

Because pigs can produce large litters at a very young age, multiple times per year, the industry is lucrative for breeders who often breed baby pigs to baby pigs.

Reputable breeders, however, take time to educate customers.

“Backyard breeders, essentially, are telling you their pigs you're looking at are fully grown when, in fact, they're not,” said Haley Coniglio owns and operates Haley’s Piggy Village in Hemet. "So, the parents that you're looking at are actually going to double in size and you're going to end up wondering why your piglet ended up getting so big.”

Coniglio is the only California breeder registered by the American Mini Pig Association. To become registered, breeders must follow an 18-point code of ethics that has strict guidelines on sizing claims and breeding practices.

“They're selling these pigs for an exorbitant amount of money to poor, unsuspecting people that see pictures on their website that are going to end up with some sort of medical disaster on their hands,” Rosen said.

When a pig is underfed to stay small, it’s musculoskeletal system can’t keep up with the growth of its organs. It’s oversized head hangs from lack of muscle. It is hunched, pigeon-toed, and likely won’t live long.

“It's a bit of a design flaw to be a pig already. You're not really structured in the best way,” Rosen said. "You have very tiny little legs and feet, and a big body, and so you really do have to have proper nutrition and you have to grow in an appropriate way for that kind of ridiculous body.”

Though mini pig marketing can be deceptive, it is not illegal. Pigs don’t have the same protection under the law as traditional pets because the USDA classifies them as livestock swine, whether they’re companions or food.

“Because the animals in our food system actually are not treated very well pigs fall into that category as well and aren't really protected the same way that food animals aren't protected,” Rosen said.

SANCTUARY STATUS

The grass at Grazin Pig Acres has long been grazed by the rescued residents that now live here. Martin and Nancy Koontz run the sanctuary in Ramona. They say they are inundated with phone calls on a daily basis to take in more pigs.

“Some of the people we don't even call back because we don't even know what to tell them, because there's no other sanctuary that has any room,” Nancy Koontz said.

“I have some here that people have paid $1,000 for. There's just no control over the breeders and they just keep doing it to make a dollar,” Martin Koontz said. “The breeders put these names on them like micro, mini, teacup, pixie pig, and there's just no such thing. As soon as you buy that little baby and you drive off on their property, they don't want to see you again.”

Paula Cardone comes to Grazin Pig Acres to visit her pig, Roger. She said when she bought him he fit into her hand.

“They said he was a miniature pot-belly micro pig and I thought he was getting big because I didn’t know how to feed him properly,” said Cardone. “I never expected him to get this big.”

Nancy Koontz said pigs make great pets. But they ask that people visit, learn, then adopt, so overfilled sanctuaries like theirs don’t have to turn away pigs — abandoned just for being pigs.