Oink If You Care

A retired Marana couple dedicates themselves to saving unwanted pigs

"Watch out for the Love Pig," calls a young man, who is working on the other side of the field from where I'm standing. "She'll sneak up behind you!" Sure enough, I look around to see 135 pounds of potbelly flopping to the ground at my feet, then rolling over to expose her tummy.

"This one used to be a very spoiled pig," says Mary Schanz, my guide through the Ironwood Pig Sanctuary, near Marana. "She used to live totally indoors and always had her toes painted."

We head over to a smaller field for special-needs pigs, where Schanz begins prodding at a fellow lying in a pen. Amid protests, the old boy crawls up and out into the yard. "Why is he squealing like that?" I ask.

"Because pigs are pathetic creatures," Schanz replies, but she doesn't really mean it. She and her husband, Ben Watkins, have taken in 400 of them during the past three years. With more seriousness, she adds, "He has arthritis. He feels sorry for himself, and he's letting everyone know. Pigs are like that; they fuss and fight, and just like people, sometimes they form deep bonds."

Watkins and Schanz had looked forward to traveling after retirement, but that plan changed several years ago when they volunteered at another potbellied pig sanctuary. After two years, the couple purchased 70 acres of land and launched their own venture in 2001. Now, the former engineer and the former medical technologist tend year-round to their pigs.

The sanctuary also employs four full-time staff members, and the visitor center offers an extra room where volunteers can stay. Watkins, who designed the facility, takes care of maintenance and "all the paperwork," while Schanz wrestles medications into her charges and heads up the troops.

Sprinkling swine feed, we make our way through fields of wagging pig tails, where I'm surprised to learn that an optimum diet for a potbelly is only two cups of chow a day, plus a little hay. While the occasional malnourished animal does find its way to Ironwood, the vast majority tends to arrive overweight.

The sanctuary is busier than Schanz and Watkins ever expected it to be, and their most recent newsletter, in May, stated that its fields were at capacity and could no longer accept new rescues except under emergency conditions. Two months later, Watkins found himself directing the construction of new shelters and another field for an incoming herd of 46--refugees from a defunct Phoenix-area sanctuary.

Schanz has a simple explanation for their decision to accept the new herd: "Animal Control takes pigs it can't adopt to the rendering plant," she says.

A few of the pigs-in-residence are boarders, but they don't represent a significant source of income. Sponsorship has become vital, with 135 pigs currently being supported by donors who send $30 a month. During the past three months, there have been 35 adoptions; Schanz personally inspected each home before the pigs were placed, traveling as far as Wickenburg, encouraging people to adopt in pairs whenever possible. "If a pig doesn't have another pig to fuss at, it's going to fuss at you!" is her advice.

Adoption fees are $30 for males and $60 for females, which covers vaccinations, worming and the spay/neuter surgery. Thanks to Dr. Page, a Marana vet, Ironwood has access to free consultations and low-cost spay/neuter surgeries. "Without her (Page)," say Schanz and Watkins, "it wouldn't work."

What kind of person should consider adopting a pig? "Not a control freak," says Schanz, emphatically, "and definitely not someone with a manicured yard!

"If you want a cuddly little pet, a pig's not for you. They're smart, though, and they'll follow you around to lie at your feet."

Thumbing through a scrapbook in the visitor center, I find touching descriptions of how different pigs have come to the sanctuary. On the very first page was the disturbing story of Miss Saigon.

"My abusive owners beat me with a hammer," reads the caption underneath her photo.

Volunteers are welcome at every level of involvement, from staffing a booth at the Fourth Avenue Street Fair to living on the premises for a couple of months, tending to the herds. Ten of Ironwood's 70 acres house approximately 50 pigs each, leaving the rest as a buffer zone.

"We feel pretty secure about our space," Schanz says. "It's water that's a huge concern." Schanz and Watkins recently drilled to look for an additional water source, but came up dry. "Our neighbors half a mile down the road have a well that provides all the water they need," says Schanz, "but all we got was a hole in the ground." Tanks currently provide a holding capacity of 20,000 gallons on site, which means that Watkins has to make a run in the water truck every other day.

What are the sanctuary's most urgent needs? Their Web site lists a variety of suggestions, including wading pools and blankets. In person, Schanz narrows down the list. "We need help with general maintenance," she says, "a working well and cash."

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