Written by Nicola Vernon
It all started with a pig…
I have a small farm in Greyton where, in 2003, my friend Rohan and I started building straw bale houses and living off the grid. All around us in the neighbouring farmers’ fields were sheep and wheat. The sheep seemed to be getting a raw deal – summer lambs fried in the heat, short of water and shelter whilst winter lambs froze in sub-zero temperatures. We swooped up as many as we could, warmed them up, revived them and returned them to the farmers.
Lambs in peril
After a while I started thinking about the life that they would be denied. These beautiful, gentle, loving, softly muzzled babies would soon be dead; I’d saved them only to send them to a far worse fate – the abattoir.
I’d learned about looking after lambs in my previous home in Cumbria in the UK. There I’d joined an organisation called Lamb Watch, whereby people living beside farms could help farmers by keeping an eye on their lambs and alerting them to problems. I had been on a course and was taught how to revive a fragile or dying lamb.
In South Africa, I was struck by the lack of care or concern about these babies, their loss being regarded as some sort of inevitable part of farming. On studying the Animal Protection Act, I realised it was being disregarded. Animals were being denied shelter, adequate clean water and feed, veterinary care when they needed it, and they were not being shepherded so lambs would lie dying in fields for days before they were noticed.
I noticed and I started picking up the lambs and keeping them. I only took the ones that I knew would not make the night and I did my best to support those who had a chance at life by lifting them in a towel and taking them back to their mothers. I would stand off, sometimes for over an hour, until the lamb was able to feed and only then would I walk away, but I returned frequently to make sure the little one was continuing to feed.
For the ones that I took, I reckoned if the farmer tackled me I could counter tackle by opening a case for animal abuse but, thankfully, it never went that far. I didn’t want to fall out with neighbours who already regarded me as a bit weird.
Where it started
In November 2014 word of my sheep rescue had reached the social media and I was asked to help out with a pig called Bella. And that’s where it started.
A lady in Kalk Bay was keeping a pig as a pet and the municipality told her that this was not permitted in the by-laws and it would have to be removed or put down. When asked to take her I said yes. I’ll never forget the first time I met a pig. Bella was and is simply beautiful.
This huge, grey and white, furry girl with big, intelligent brown eyes stepped gracefully out of quite a small car in her pink harness, came straight up to me, gazed directly into my eyes and then plonked down for a tummy rub. I was in love.
Bella grazed around our home and spent the night in her spacious kennel on the stoep next to my bedroom. She was accustomed to spending the night outside so she was very comfortable there. News of the rescue spread and soon more people were approaching me to see if I would take their pigs.
No such breed as a mini pig
I learned about the pet pig industry, where people breed so-called micro or mini pigs. I researched the subject fastidiously and found that there is no such breed as a mini pig. Small stature is achieved by breeding from runts, taking the piglet from the mother prematurely and then giving too little food in order to keep the piglet small.
Suddenly I was hearing about 60 – 70kg “mini pigs” that had outgrown their homes, destroyed gardens, eaten sofas and shredded their bedding. Bored pigs, taken from mothers before they’ve had time to teach them some manners, can turn aggressive; one day, Ziggy was delivered to us by his owner, who was wearing full-leg leather riding chaps for protection. Ziggy attacked anything that moved and yet he craved attention. He would come up to us, keening for a belly rub, and then swipe us with his jaw, mouth open, tusks ripping into our legs.
Today he is still a little unpredictable but is much more sweet-natured and gentle. We rub his tummy every day without incident and give him a special treat laced with herbal allergy powder to keep a long-existing skin irritation at bay.
Then we heard about two farm pigs that had escaped a township fire in Grabouw and were holed up at Peregrine Farm Stall on the N2 under a small copse of oak trees where they’d made a nest in the fallen leaves and were surviving on the acorns. We drove there in two bakkies and, with help from various animal welfare charities, were able to pick up both of them, a mother and her four-month-old daughter. The mother, whom we called Genevieve, was so badly burnt a vet told me later no human could have survived. Her daughter, Michelle, never left her side. That’s when we realised that, for both their sakes, we had to pull out all the stops to save mum.
Genevieve received all the medication from the vets that was necessary to stave off infection from the burns that covered 30% of her body, from under her jaw through to her belly to the back of her thighs. Then it was down to constant nursing care. I used a mix of coconut oil and lavender essential oil to soothe the burns, promote healing and soften the taut hard lumps of skin. In time nearly the whole of her underside peeled off, leaving baby-soft skin underneath. I didn’t sleep, wondering if I was doing the right thing in putting her through so much pain. As she grew stronger and started wandering around her paddock and lying in the sun, I realised she was going to make it and that it had all been worthwhile.
But these ladies had another surprise for us. Young Michelle, a piglet herself, was expecting. About three months after their arrival Michelle gave birth to four of the prettiest, softest, cutest little creatures I had ever seen. Piglets are surely the most gorgeous babies on the planet – I couldn’t take my eyes off them as they suckled at their mother’s teats, play-fought with each other, zoomed in tight circles and collapsed panting into a piggy pile when truce was called.
I learned a lot about piggy relationships. One evening I heard a commotion on my stoep. I looked outside to see Michelle approaching Bella in her big kennel, her four piglets trotting along behind her. There was quite a bit of grunting but it all sounded affable. About ten minutes later I peered into the kennel and there was Bella babysitting the four babies. Michelle had obviously asked if she and her teats could take a night off and would Aunt Bella kindly keep her babies warm.
Today Genevieve and Michelle, along with Dulcie, Margot, Sylvie and Rudi, live in a large paddock with Aunty Bella and two other piggies, Oreo and Rosie.
Oreo came to us as a “mini pig” whose owners could no longer cope. An aggressive little pig, he was isolated from both humans and animals because of his vicious and unpredictable attacks on anybody who passed his way. I had an idea. His mother hadn’t been around to teach him manners; perhaps Genevieve, by now a sturdy, well-muscled and agile matriarch, would be able to stand up to him and persuade him to stop his nonsense.
I opened the gate to the paddock while my two wonderful farm workers ushered Oreo into his new quarters. Gen, being the boss, ambled over to see if she was going to allow this interloper into her paddock. Oreo went for her and Gen put her head down. As he reached her she jerked her powerful head and neck up and Oreo went flying two metres into the air, coming down with a thump behind her. And that was that. He showed submissiveness to her and then went off to sulk for three days. Now he’s very much part of that little tribe – sleeping, wallowing, rootling and snuffling snout to snout with his new family.
Rosie was rescued by two ladies in Villiersdorp who saw her being fattened up, day after day, in a cold, concrete room no bigger than a farm worker’s toilet. She came to us already quite big and now she is simply huge, our own Esther the Wonder Pig, but as soft and sweet-natured as it is possible to be.
One happy animal family
We now have 88 pigs, our numbers having swelled considerably when we agreed to take pigs from two piggeries that were being closed down by the SPCA. Many of the young sows were pregnant, so 27 pigs quickly became 54 as six of the sows had between four and seven babies each.
We’ve received farm pigs confiscated by the SPCA that come to us completely broken, exhausted, traumatised, painfully thin and severely neglected. They are the most rewarding as they are so grateful for each and every day as they wake up to a life where they’ll always be safe, warm, well fed and protected, their every need met for the rest of their natural lives. To see a rescue pig, such as our lovely Lilly, wallow in mud for the first time, drive her snout through soft, friable soil, after having lived hock deep in her own faeces all her life, is to witness pure joy.
As I’ve gotten to know pigs I’ve become a vegan. It’s simply not possible to know a pig and continue to eat pork. As they look straight into your eyes their intelligence shines through. They express sadness, happiness, misery and joy just as we do. They are so easy to read because they communicate in every way, through their huge vocabulary of grunts, squeaks, deep rumbles and barks, through their sudden bursts of speed, tippy-toe trotting, dizzy pirouetting and languid fall into the “belly rub please” position. They have complex hierarchical structures, they argue, sulk, love, fight, nurture, chat, negotiate.
A sanctuary for all
As the sanctuary has grown we’ve created a non-profit led by Rohan and I with two younger couples who will ensure that the sanctuary survives when the two sixty-year-old founders are no longer around to look after the animals here. We are fortunate to attract loving “virtual” mums and dads who “adopt” our babies by sponsoring their monthly food bills.
Greyton Farm Animal Sanctuary is home to dogs, cats, sheep, goats, ducks, and chickens. All of them characters with their own story. We have a sheep called Baa who is convinced that he’s a pig and only hangs out with the pigs. Our rooster, Sebastian, came to us from a petting zoo where he’d lost the will to live. He now lives with Big Bella, a pig who nearly died from obesity but who is now fit and well, and she allows Sebastian to roost on her still-large backside every night. Or the fight we put up to save sweet Callee, a one-year-old pig weighing 5kgs when she should have weighed 70kg, with multiple fractures, who was with us just five weeks but who filled our farm with her sweet and loving nature. Each one of them has a special place in our hearts.
We offer accommodation for people to come and live amongst the pigs and help us look after them. We do our best to advocate a vegan lifestyle but, in truth, even our hugest effort does not have the same impact as simply sitting quietly with a pig, sharing a moment of companionship and realising, in that moment, that one is in the presence of a strong, powerful presence that wants and deserves to live.
For more information about Greyton Farm Animal Sanctuary, call 082 558 7752, email firstname.lastname@example.org and follow them on Facebook @ greytonfarmanimalsanctuary and Instagram @greytonfarmanimalsanctuary