- The Washington Times - Friday, November 3, 2000

MARYSVILLE, Calif. A few years back, potbellied pigs were the pet du jour, prized by movie stars and able to fetch thousands of dollars. Then the market went belly up.

Suddenly, you couldn't give one away unless it was to Janet Fine.

"The fad wore off and all these poor darling pigs who'd been taken in on a whim became throwaway pets," says Mrs. Fine, her eyes glistening with tears and a sob catching in her throat. "Well I'll tell you, I just decided they would go to slaughter over my dead body.

"The result, as you see, is we're up to our eyeballs in pigs."

That's an understatement. Janet and her husband, Keith, a retired public works director, won their first potbellied pig in a raffle. She learned about five other potbellies destined for auction, and "cried and cried to save their lives, and I must have cried good enough because my husband gave in and we got 'em."

Today she has emerged as Mother Teresa to the cloven-hoofed. Disavowing her former appetite for a tasty pork chop "I'd gag at the sight of one now" she has rescued and raised more than 100 orphaned pet pigs, even finding new homes for some. Most are potbellies neglected or abandoned by previous owners.

The Fines' operation is one of about a dozen sanctuaries that have sprung up nationwide to care for potbellies, a miniaturized pig once marketed as a prestigious alternative to the family dog.

Introducing the Vietnamese potbellies to the United States in 1985, promoters promised they would make excellent, docile house pets and would grow only to "cocker spaniel size," a mere 40 pounds. By the mid-1990s, celebrities like Julia Roberts and George Clooney were acquiring the little porkers, and several cities amended "barnyard" prohibition ordinances so common folk could obtain theirs as well.

But casual owners were in for a rude awakening.

For starters, potbellies may be miniaturized, but they are diminutive versions of farm pigs that weigh a half ton. A potbellied pig doesn't reach full-grown adulthood until age 4, when it tips the scales at an average of 150 pounds some weigh in at well over 250.

Curious, bored and left alone to lumber around in houses and apartments, they rooted up carpeting and linoleum, devoured house plants and shredded bedding. Put outside, some could dig up an entire yard in a day.

Owners also complained about the pigs' aggression. "Actually, it's just pigs being pigs. They're a herd animal by nature," says Renee Roehm of Millbrae, Calif., who came to rue the day family allergies to cats and dogs persuaded her to purchase a pet potbelly.

Soon she was at her wits' end. "A solitary pig will look for another creature to dominate, be it a pig or a human. At our house, that meant my pig Norman was charging and attacking my 7-year-old daughter. The more she ran away, the more aggressive he became."

Within a few years, animal control officers in California and around the country were collecting unwanted pigs with few alternatives but to put them down.

The Fines offered an option. As their menagerie of orphaned pigs grew, the couple moved out to the boonies, settling on a five-acre ranch they christened Piggy Pals Fine Sanctuary. It's at full capacity now with 80 pigs.

A lucky eight of them are house pigs. "Two of our original girls sleep in my husband's room, and Yogi, he jumps up in bed with me sometimes," Mrs. Fine admits with a shrug and a grin.

The rest laze in the backyard mud or peruse the grassy meadow rooting for acorns. "This house wasn't really what I wanted, but I could really see my pigs in this wonderful meadow," she explains. Her eyes narrow ever so slightly. "You a pig person?" she queries earnestly.

Receiving a response something less than effusive, she summons her most persuasive recruiting tools. "Here, kids, come on."

Instantly, Mrs. Fine is surrounded by a slew of swine, filling the morning air with the percussion of their snorts and shoving their snouts against her blue-jeaned legs. "Wanna cookie? Then sit for Mom," she says, popping a doggie Milk Bone into the mouth of an obedient pig.

As she dispenses tummy scratches and kisses, the pigs rut forward and wag their tails in anticipation of the affection.

Piggy Pals gets three to four calls a week, but has to turn away almost every caller because the sanctuary is full. "The hardest thing for me to do is say no," Mrs. Fine says. "It just breaks your heart."

• Distributed by Scripps Howard

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