Hog Haven therapy pigs help in nursing homes and memory care facilities | TheFencePost.com

Hog Haven therapy pigs help in nursing homes and memory care facilities

These little piggies aren't going to market

Since childhood, pigs have always been Erin Brinkley-Burgardt's favorite animals. In 2013, she and husband Andrew Burgardt decided to venture into pig "parenting," thus beginning a rather unique adventure. Brinkley-Burgardt was immediately smitten with her new pets, Pippy and Boris. So much so, that she and her husband bought them all a nice place to live.

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She named her 38-acre farm Hog Haven (a word play on the phrase hog heaven), which currently has nine large pens, five barns and 10 custom-built, insulated shelters. Adequate grazing areas allow all pigs free forage during the day. These stellar facilities are put to good use by Hog Haven's current 80-head population, 69 of which are mini potbellies. But these little piggies don't go to market. Rather, they go to work.

In 2014, a memory care facility approached the Deer Trail, Colo., woman about the possibility of bringing in a pig as a therapy animal. Many Colorado nursing home and memory care facility residents grew up on farms so pigs spark recollections of their early years. Brinkley-Burgardt agreed to try the animal-assisted therapy and was immediately hooked. Now the list of Hog Haven's therapy facilities include The Lodge at Balfour, The Villa at Balfour and Balfour-Cherrywood (Louisville); Continuum Colorado (Aurora); Laradon Hall (Denver); Highline Place (Littleton).  On every visit nonverbal patients easily and immediately engage with her pigs, which encourages conversation.

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"It's a very heart-warming moment," Brinkley-Burgardt said.

However, before such near-magic begins, much behind-the-scenes work takes place. The majority of Hog Haven's rescued animals are owner-surrenders. Common misconceptions exist about mini and pet pigs, Brinkley-Burgardt said. According to the American Mini Pig Association, only 2 to 5 percent of all pet pigs remain in one home for their lifetimes, she said.

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MISLEADING SIZE

One reason is that breeders sell piglets under misleading size terminology like "teacup" or "micro-mini." Such classifications refer to potbellied pigs that are all mini compared to standard breeds. When pets outgrow size expectations, or when people uneducated in pig parenting give up on training, animals are relinquished. Brinkley-Burgardt sadly noted she's also rescued some that were victims of abuse and/or neglect, as well as 10 that were slaughter bound. (Even though potbellies are domesticated and considered pets, some people do purchase them for consumption.)

For practical reasons, only potbellies are used for therapy. Full-grown Hampshires and Yorkshires can weigh in excess of 500 pounds, too large to travel or maneuver in a healthcare facility.

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Just as other therapy animals, pigs must be trained to walk on a lead, obey specific commands (sit, stay, etc.) and be housebroken. Since the species is highly food-oriented, leash and command training is relatively simple. Potty training is also a breeze because, contrary to popular belief, pigs are very clean creatures. They also enjoy human contact.

"Our therapy pigs are very well-socialized and enjoy being petted," Brinkley-Burgardt said. "The (memory care/nursing facility) residents can also feed them treats that I bring. The pigs are trained to be very gentle and many perform tricks for snacks, too."

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Besides therapy animals, Hog Haven is home to standard-sized pigs, including a Kunekune, a Meishan, seven Hampshires and two Yorkshires, all slaughter rescues. Brinkley-Burgardt described Hog Haven as a vegan organization that advocates for a compassionate diet. She became a vegan four years ago after "being able to put faces on food".

"Just as people form bonds with common pets like cats and dogs, we have formed strong bonds with the pigs," she said. "I can't imagine eating a pig at this point because I know how they are as creatures and as pets. Because they are so emotionally and mentally intelligent, I cannot stomach the idea of killing and consuming them."

PERSONALITIES

Pigs are definitely individuals. Brinkley-Burgardt described three of Hog Haven's more notable residents: Mac Attack, an 8-month-old Yorkshire, weighs 150 ponds and sports the breed's characteristic curly tail and floppy ears. He's curious and friendly to animals and people alike. He doesn't walk, he runs, and just radiates positivity and happiness. Anyone who comes to visit immediately falls in love with Mac.

Pumba is among Hog Haven's first rescued pigs and is a member of its therapy crew. He loves people, strutting and showing off for them every chance he gets. He likes to perform his repertoire without prompting to impress new people. These tricks include sitting and spinning. This charmer is also the resident butt-biter among his kind.

One of the farm's most unusual pigs is Felix, a Meishan. The breed has long, floppy ears, wrinkly skin, curled tails, tall legs and long, lean bodies. Fairly uncommon in the U.S., this Chinese meat breed is growing in popularity in the Midwest. Felix was erroneously presented and sold as a mini pig—he quickly outgrew his home. He was left at a Missouri shelter but a few connections eventually brought him to Hog Haven. Felix is docile, loves human affection, and is a visitor favorite.

Like any proud parent, Brinkley-Burgardt finds it hard to name her favorite. "All of the pigs have different personalities and are so sweet and funny. There's no shortage of smiles at Hog Haven."

The farm partnered with the Colorado High Plains Adventure in 2016 to encourage more tourism to the plains. It was also an opportunity to promote the rescue, which welcomes visitors.

"We would love to see the eastern plains' economy thrive with more awareness and exposure," Brinkley-Burgardt said. "CHPA has two annual festivals that we participate in. This allows us a platform to showcase our rescue work, fundraise, and educate the general public on pigs as pets and as creatures."

"We are working to amend zoning laws in certain areas to allow pigs as pets," she said.

MAKING CHANGES

Brinkley-Burgardt is seeking to change breeding practices for which there are currently no regulations in place. Because of this, many "backyard" breeders have popped up around Colorado, resulting in abuses. Pigs are often inbred for smaller size; these pet breeders offer poor and/or false information about size, training, behaviors and nutrition; many unscrupulous breeders won't accept returns if a surrender situation arises. Hog Haven's goal is to regulate breeding to prevent high numbers of unwanted pet pigs as well as to educate potential owners about proper training and maintenance. 

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Hog Haven's long-term vision is to promote pigs as pets and to advocate for responsible pet pig ownership.

The farm attempts to re-home pigs but the adoption rate is low compared to the demand for incoming pigs. Many of its animals are 100-plus pounds, bigger than what many potential adopters want. Pigs have a lifespan of 15-20 years but many people insist on getting a piglet rather than an adult, ruling out Hog Haven's 2-year-old and older pigs.

As with other 501c3 nonprofits, Hog Haven is publicly supported. It has an Amazon Wishlist, sells merchandise for fundraising, and accepts in-kind donations. Plus, the farm hosts two volunteer days per month from spring through fall. Duties include general cleanup, fence repair, cleaning out kiddie pools, hanging sun shades in pens and snuggling pigs.

Learn more about pigs as pets at http://www.hoghavenfarm.org.