Pig-A-Sus Homestead, a Potbelly Pig sanctuary in Mack, Colo., is home to over sixty potbellied pigs who have been given a second chance after being neglected or saved from dangerous environments. (Video by Skyler Ballard)

MACK • It’s time for treats.

“Come on, everybody, come on!” shouts Sioux Robbins-Bartels, roaming her 8-acre backyard. “It’s cookie time! Come on, everybody!”

Everybody slowly emerges from their shelters — Chuckles, Snooty, Tootsie, Gracie and others, all tubby and muddy, all oinking and snorting and stumbling their way to grandma.

Here in the country west of Grand Junction, these 67 potbellied pigs love their cookies. And Robbins-Bartels loves to provide; she says she orders 2,400 cookies a month, sweets between nutritious slop.

Robbins-Bartels is a sturdy, playful, sun-baked and craggy-faced embodiment of the breed that captivates for both their size and personality. Indeed, Robbins-Bartels knows potbellied pigs as her spirit animal, a connection that she says runs deep in her Native blood. Sioux is her name and ancestry.

“I was born in 1947, the year of the pig,” she says. “And my birthday is March 1. That’s National Pig Day.”

For 25 years, her duty has been to rescue pigs from sad, dangerous predicaments.

Here’s Tobias, who as a piglet was found in a shoebox on the side of the road. Robbins-Bartels got a call from a Sheriff’s Office, having become known also by animal control and humane societies around the West. She took little Tobias and bottle-fed him.

Here’s Pud, who came to Robbins-Bartels from a home where dogs chewed down her ears, the owners evidently unaware that pigs and canines don’t always get along.

Here’s Petunia, whose owners couldn’t tame her. “She was hell on wheels,” Robbins-Bartels recalls, now bending down for Petunia kisses. “You just gotta work with ‘em and work with ‘em, let ‘em know they’re safe. Plus, you bite me, I whack ya.”

She gives Salty a slap on the snout now — for being greedy with the cookies. “No! You be good!”

Elsewhere, 100-pound Walter is squeezing himself into a tub. “Walter, what are you doing? Walter, have a cookie.”

It’s another afternoon at Pig-A-Sus Homestead, believed to be Colorado’s first safe haven of its kind for what has been an increasingly imperiled creature in America.

Two decades after her farm saw as many as 125 pigs, Robbins-Bartels says she has forced herself to say no to more and more calls. She’s shifted her focus to be a senior center; the residents of Pig-A-Sus range in age from 12 to 18, with their life expectancy up to 25.

“I’m 74 freaking years old,” Robbins-Bartels says. “If I take in a 2-year-old, I’ll be 94 years old with a pig running around.”

So her idea lately has been to take in the elderly, to give them as comfortable an end to life as possible. Many potbellies come to her sick and injured, leaving her to make hard decisions.

“When you look at them in the eyes, and you don’t see the love, they’re hollow,” she says, “then it’s time.”

Equally hard for Robbins-Bartels is looking at a growing waiting list. These are pigs she’s declined who, if not rehomed, could be euthanized in some cases. With her age, land limits and each vet-needy pig costing $500 a year — mostly paid out of pocket, she says, from her and her husband’s lifelong work in the farm and oil fields — saying yes wouldn’t be right, Robbins-Bartels says.

Erin Brinkley-Burgardt feels a similar burden.

“The amount of pigs in need of a new home is out of control,” she says.

She and her husband seven years ago started Hog Haven Farm in Deer Trail, on the plains east of Denver. The sanctuary is now known as the largest of its kind in the state, home to 141 “pig friends,” most of them potbellied.

Brinkley-Burgardt says she gets anywhere between five and 30 “surrender” calls a week. She says 2021 is on pace for a record — in line with nationwide trends of other pets arriving at shelters after mass adoptions during the 2020 pandemic.

“Our primary demand is direct owner surrender,” Brinkley-Burgardt says. “We do have to say no to 99% of those calls.”

The demand, she says, “is there from a lack of education.”

Advocates have been harping on the issue since the 1980s. That’s when Vietnamese-imported potbellies popped up at American zoos, the fuzzy and smiley babies capturing visitor adoration. Breeders took notice. They began an unregulated trade, inbreeding herds and selling piglets to unaware and misinformed buyers.

These came to be marketed as “mini pigs.” Or “teacup pigs.”

“Unfortunately, this breed grew to 150-200 pounds,” reads an account from the American Mini Pig Association, “and Americans realized how difficult a pig of that size was to manage.”

This was one educational nonprofit that formed in what was considered a potbelly crisis. Between 1998 and 2014, one estimate suggested “mini pig” populations in the U.S. and Canada boomed from around 200,000 to closer to a million.

American Mini Pig Association started with a code of ethics for owners — a list of best practices, from proper housing, to proper protection from other pets such as dogs, to proper veterinary care. The organization’s long-term goals remain much of the same: “to eliminate unethical breeding practices” and “to reduce the number of displaced pigs.”

This was a mission Sue Clavin took up after retiring in Colorado Springs on National Pig Day, 2002. She gave a generous donation to Pig-A-Sus and went about advocating where else she could around the country.

“Now the number of pig sanctuaries has mushroomed,” she says, “and the number of rehoming has mushroomed even more.”

Under licensing requirements of the city, Clavin keeps two potbellied pigs at her Old North End home. Olivia was abandoned in an apartment by a previous owner. Cookie was a piglet found frantic at a grocery store parking lot.

Now settled, they have quirks as Heidi did — a previous potbellied pig of Clavin’s who learned to open the refrigerator door. She’s reminisced like this with her pal Robbins-Bartels, whose first pig, Thumper, rode in the passenger seat of her truck and rang the doorbell to come inside.

Intelligent is but one human characteristic they give the pigs. Personable is another.

“They make you laugh every day,” Clavin says. “It’s like having a 2-year-old toddler in your house for 20 years.”

The love is shared in a Facebook group for Colorado mini pig owners and seekers, with about 1,700 members. While the page aims to be informative, other corners of social media are blamed for the modern plight of pigs.

“I’d say Instagram is a leading culprit,” Brinkley-Burgardt says.

Influencers stake their brand on the cuteness and appeal to unprepared owners, advocates say. One might recall Paris Hilton and her pint-sized companions. One might follow any number of famous pigs on Instagram, from Prissy to Pickles.

Reportedly “a whopping 600 pounds” according to her website where apparel and other merchandise is sold, Esther the Wonder Pig is followed by more than 600,000 on Instagram, often pictured in colorful costume.

Esther’s owners include a message against slaughter. “All pigs are loving, intelligent and compassionate animals,” reads the website, “and they deserve better than the brutal life they are born into.”

It’s no coincidence “pig parents” share an aversion to meat. They talk of pigs inspiring a certain sense of empathy and innocence.

Robbins-Bartels talks of them in terms of her Sioux upbringing.

“You have a need to kill if you need, but you also have a need to let live,” she says. “If you want to see that animal continue on, then you do everything you can to make it live.”

How much longer she can at Pig-A-Sus, she isn’t sure.

Some nights she can’t sleep, she says. Those are nights she might pour a glass of iced tea and sit on the patio under the moon’s glow, not far from where Thumper is buried under an elm tree.

“I just listen to ‘em snore,” Robbins-Bartells says. “It’s peaceful. They know they’re safe.”

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