Ironwood Pig Sanctuary has hundreds of pigs, could be largest in nation
RED ROCK, Ariz. -- Arnold entered assisted living a few years ago. He couldn't move around like he used to, on account of his arthritis.
``Almost all pot-bellied pigs get arthritis as they grow old,'' Mary Schanz said.
Arnold lives at the Ironwood Pig Sanctuary, on one of six assisted living fields. He is 13, perhaps 14 years old, and one of Ironwood's first residents. There are now some 600 Vietnamese pot-bellied pigs here.
By some estimates, it's the largest pig sanctuary in the country. But it's not easy to find. Ironwood sits in the middle of a Sonoran Desert cactus-scape, off a dirt road, 8 miles east of Red Rock.
Schanz, 68, started Ironwood with her husband, Ben Watkins, in 2000. For them, it's kind of a second career. Schanz was an animal-rights activist. Watkins, 73, was an electrical engineer. They lived in Tucson, where they still have a house.
In 1998, they saw a newspaper article about a woman who wanted help with her pot-bellied pigs. And so Schanz and Watkins took her up on it, volunteering their time.
But the job became too much for the woman. And she had too many pigs on too little land. So Watkins and Schanz started their own sanctuary in the desert. They bought 40 acres and took most of the woman's pigs with them. The pigs at Ironwood now have about 15 acres to themselves -- and an unobstructed view.
``As property became available to us, we bought it as a buffer,'' Watkins said.
For now, the couple needn't worry about the neighbors. There are none.
The pigs end up here because they're unwanted. People get baby pot-bellied pigs for pets and learn that pigs -- as they mature -- have a downside. Several downsides. They can be aggressive. They can chew through drywall. One woman complained of her pig raiding the refrigerator.
Pigs are smart, Schanz said.
They can also uproot an entire garden.
At the sanctuary, creosote and other desert plants lie in heaps outside a fenced area. They look like something cleared by a bulldozer. But they have all been uprooted by pigs.
Nobody knows if ripping up the backyard had been Belinda's undoing. She was a recent arrival, still in the intake pen.
``She was dumped in front of somebody's house,'' Schanz said.
The homeowner called police.
``They took her to the veterinarian and the veterinarian called us.''
Her story is typical, Schanz added.
Sometimes the pigs come in bunches. Occasionally, animal control officers rescue them from animal hoarders keeping pot-bellied pigs in the worst conditions -- often crowded together. Forty-five pigs from Peoria, 75 from Apache Junction.
At Ironwood Pig Sanctuary, the pigs have room to wallow. They live in fields of an acre or more each, grouped by how well they get along. Each field has a name and shade and troughs for feeding. Many fields have the gently rolling contour of natural desert.
But there's more to a pig sanctuary than space. Schanz and Watkins run a village that just happens to be populated by pigs.
Schanz knows all 600 pigs by name. Some, when they see her coming, flop down on their sides, ever hopeful for a belly rub.
The first thing you notice, however, are the water tanks. You can see them from the road. Big enough for a small town, they hold 110,000 gallons of water. The pigs get 4,000 to 5,000 gallons a day. In summer, that goes up to 6,000 gallons. Some of it's pumped from groundwater. The rest is trucked in from Red Rock, where Watkins attaches a flow meter to a fire hydrant.
For its first eight years, Ironwood relied on two large generators for electricity, one dating to the Korean War. The sanctuary is on the grid now.
Left at the gate is the intake pen. Here new arrivals are isolated from the general pig population. Most of the males arrive with all their equipment. They'll be neutered by a veterinarian before they're assimilated. This will take some of the fight out of them. And keep them from getting too friendly with unspayed females.
The sanctuary takes pigs in. It doesn't breed them.
Goliath is awaiting his turn for surgery. Right now, he's a little pig. But he'll grow into his name.
Typically, a full-grown pot-bellied pig weighs between 120 and 150 pounds. But some can tip the scales at 200 or more.
Often people are fed a line about pot-bellied pigs, Schanz said. They buy what they're told is a teacup pig. That the pig will stay forever small, like a little dog. But the pig just keeps growing and growing.
``We have taken in over 1,000 pigs, and we've never seen a teacup pig,'' Schanz said.
Arnold is definitely not in the teacup class. He was once the big pig on campus, when he had the run of the Main field. He was the alpha male. But he lost edge as the years took their toll. He now spends his time with the other geriatrics.
Pot-bellied pigs can live up to 20 years.
One day he'll likely make the move to the hospice field. Here the pigs get extra attention.
``We tuck them in at night,'' Watkins said.
But like the family pet, pigs face end-of-life issues. Pigs too infirm to go on are euthanized. Most pigs aren't there yet, but it is an aging crowd.
``Of my nearly 600 pigs, 400 of them are 13 or older,'' Schanz said.
And older pigs need lots of care. A veterinarian makes regular visits. Every day medications are dispensed in some 340 specially prepared peanut butter sandwiches.
That's on top of regular feeding and watering. And the weekly raking of pig poop.
Schanz and Watkins can't handle this alone. They have help from 20 part-time and full-time employees.
As you might guess, operating a village of aging pigs doesn't come cheap.
Expenses run about $850,000 a year. That doesn't count the salary for Schanz and Watkins. They don't have one. They volunteer their time.
The sanctuary is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, so donations are tax deductible. Some people donate outright. Others sponsor pigs. One wealthy donor from Texas showed up in a limo to visit her pig.
Donors get a magazine-style newsletter every other month. There's always a pig on the cover. And like all the pigs here, they each have a story.
Wilbur, for one, spends his days in the Yucatan field. He was brought here from the Phoenix Zoo's petting zoo. Kids flocked to him, until he became too big to pet. Wilbur was lucky. He didn't suffer the fate of pigs at most petting zoos, where retirement usually means a trip to the slaughterhouse, Schanz said.
But, as a pot-bellied pig, he had this going for him, she added.
``They're not very good eating.''