A Passion for Pigs

by J.F. Pirro
12/31/2013

  

        Established in the 1700s, Susan Magidson's property in Rushland, Pa., has served as a gristmill, a sawmill and, in the 1930s, a Christmas tree farm. Now Magidson is using 4 acres of her land at Ross Mill Farm (www.rossmillfarm.com) for her potbellied pig rescue nonprofit and pet pig commercial business.

        Another 32 acres are conserved as part of a preservation corridor, with some 2,000 acres in perpetual easement, a perfect backdrop for the preservation of potbellied pigs.

        "We're definitely unique," Magidson says. "There's a lot that goes on here, and we really are unique, but we're also trying to make a living off the land. This is definitely a diverse use of the land; it's certainly not traditional."

        Magidson and her late husband, Richard, purchased the property in 1982, when they moved from Southern California to the East Coast in pursuit of career opportunities. In 1992, they sold off a New York City marketing firm and residential loft so they could retire to their rural home. In 1990, they had gotten into potbellied pigs as a hobby, and that hobby grew into the current business.

        "It's a labor of love," Magidson says. "It's not for profit. It's for the benefit of the species. They're terrific animals."

        There are two entities at the farm. The first is Ross Mill Farm, Inc., which offers short-term, long-term and seasonal boarding of pet pigs; a potbellied pig food center; a grooming service and specialized veterinarian care clinic; and an online store. There are also pig transportation services and phone consultations; Magidson is a highly regarded "pig whisperer."

        "I help solve problems with great solutions that help pigs, but I also help pig owners," she explains. "This way a pig can remain in its home, and it won't need a new home."

        The other entity is the nonprofit Pig Placement Network (PPN, www.pigplacementnetwork.com). Magidson and Nori Rambo founded the PPN in 1998. It has three main focuses: rescue, rehabilitation and rehousing of pigs. Magidson is clear about not being a sanctuary.

        "A sanctuary takes in pigs with the intention of keeping them for the rest of their lives," she says. "All of our pigs are looking for a new home. All we do is focus on re-homing, rehabilitating (health-wise and behavior-wise) and vet care." She adds that they also take the time to identify each pig's personality, which will help to ensure the best fit when placing it in a new home.

        Ross Mill Farm is one of several foster homes for the rescue network. It's the largest foster care provider in the network; the second largest is a private residence on Long Island, N.Y.

        At any given time, Ross Mill Farm is home to 50 potbellied pigs that are being boarded, as well as 80 to 90 pigs in foster care and looking for a permanent home. "About 150 pigs is what I can handle comfortably and financially," Magidson says.

        Rehabilitated pigs learn how to be kept on a harness and get accustomed to dogs and family members in order to make them more adoptable.

        Magidson has help--usually a volunteer three to five days a week, and a half-dozen volunteers spend at least one day a week lending a hand. Several others help with fundraising, special events and educational stops at country fairs and the like. However, she says that they could use more volunteers.

        The network is also a resource for those looking for a potbellied pig and those looking for a way to responsibly forfeit a pig. "The website is a place for pigs who have a home, but who need a home, a new family," Magidson says. "We help owners find owners."

        A big focus of the network's mission is on educating others on how to keep a pet pig. Magidson says there's such a high rate of failure with pig ownership because first-time owners are not getting the right information from breeders. "That's a huge factor in the unwanted pig population," she says.

        Beginning a pet pig farm
        Magidson bought her first breeding pair of potbellied pigs as a birthday present for her husband. Since they were fostering a burgeoning small farm, the miniature pigs fit the scene, along with the farm's geese, ducks, goats and sheep.

        For the Magidsons, the cuteness of those pigs never wore off.

        "Today, many breeders are claiming that the pigs will stay small, somewhere between 20 and 25 pounds. Those numbers are unrealistic, and new owners don't realize the size they will become, so their expectations are out of line for what they're getting," she explains. "Today, we're getting more baby pigs than any others, and they're 20 to 25 pounds in three months."

        Of course, when a pig reaches 3 to 5 years old, it can also lose its cuteness. Magidson says, "The pig has grown out of the puppy stage, and the kids don't want to take care of it anymore. And the pig they got when it was 3 or 4 pounds they can no longer carry in a pocketbook."

        It's easier to place a pig that's under a year old, but educating prospective owners is still a challenge.

        "People know about dogs and cats. They have had them, or the neighbor has had them, or they were raised with a dog or a cat, but a pig is different," notes Magidson. "For example, it's a prey animal. It's not a predator. It's not a dog. It can be kept like a dog inside the house, but it's not a dog."

        Pigs are naturally very sedentary. They're nesters and they worry, mostly about how safe they are. They don't like to be left alone. "They are manipulators," Magidson says. "A pig wants to please itself--like a 3-year-old child--and it doesn't care what you think as long as it gets what it wants. And let's face it, that's food, so they become spoiled and get their way, and so they manipulate us."

        Placing pigs
        It's hard to find someone who really wants a pig, Magidson says. "But when they really want a pig, they really want a pig. It's all they've ever wanted, but then those same 'pig people' want to get rid of it before it really gets big."

        She's consistently placed 60 potbellied pigs a year for 14 years, but she only places a pig if the new owners are willing to come and pick up the animal. Typically, new owners are within a four to five-hour driving distance.

        The network also does home checks, evaluating prospective owners, who then have to pay an adoption fee between $250 and $300, which includes veterinary care and microchip placement. "It's a lot less than you would buy one for," she notes. Breeders are charging between $600 and $1,200 for a young potbellied pig.

        These days, home visits are more virtual. Magidson uses the Internet to research and document what potential adopters are saying. She also contacts local animal control officials to ensure, for example, that a wannabe owner isn't a known animal hoarder.

        She also checks potential shelters that new owners plan to use for rescued pigs. Pigs don't have a certain climate preference, but the shelter has to be free of dampness and drafts. It must be well-insulated, and in general, "The farther north you go, the better the shelter needs to be," she says.

        While there are other pig rescue efforts in the country, few are concentrated on adoptions and re-homing. Magidson says the pig sanctuaries are all full. "They all meet a point at which they have all the pigs they can handle," she says. "So at some point they can't take any more."

        Keeping the doors open
        Varied fundraising efforts, raffles and even the sale of popular pig art--created by the pigs--help keep the doors open for potbellied pigs looking for a new home.

        The Ross Mill Farm's Piggypalooza, a bluegrass-country music festival, also provides funds for the farm. The seventh annual Piggypalooza is scheduled for June 2, 2014. "Lots of people come to support the pigs," Magidson says, "but a good deal are just there to hear the music."

        It's an almost inherent struggle to apply for and receive grant money, partly because of the economy, but also because pig rescue falls between farm animal aid and pet-friendly aid. She says, "We fall between the cracks. We're not quite either one."

        Magidson says, "I have a passion for pigs. It's truly my purpose, my mission, and I want to make sure that what I'm doing will continue after I'm gone. I want it to operate the same way it does now."
 
        The author has been published in national and regional magazines as well as daily and weekly alternative city newspapers. A gentleman farmer in Quakertown, Pa., he writes about people, social trends, historic preservation and 18th-century America, agrarian culture, land use, and sports and recreation topics.
 
        Photos 1, 4, 6, 7 and 8 by Jennifer Brown, via the Ross Mill Farm & Piggy Camp Facebook page.
        Photos 2, 3 and 5 courtesy of Ross Mill Farm.