The story begins over 15 years ago on my 49th birthday when I took a call from a Modesto, California area animal shelter. They had captured what they thought was a potbellied pig. It appeared to have been burned badly on its back. It had been running loose in the Modesto area for some time, and they had finally caught it. Would we take it? We being the “California Potbellied Pig Association Rescue”.
Today, yesterday and any other day since we started doing rescue work, the answer would have been, “NO!” It was too far away, and the pig was apparently injured. But either looking out on the patio and seeing the happy healthy three legged dog we had recently adopted from “Tony LaRussa’s Animal Rescue Foundation” or the shock of approaching 50 years of age made me say, ”Yes, we can help this poor creature.” We did take some precautions however. We called one of our members who drove thirty miles to take some food to the shelter for him. The shelter had been feeding him cat food. And we even got Dr. Tanner of Oakdale’s Olde Town Veterinary Hospital, who was on vacation and moving his practice, to drive from Oakdale and check out this piggy. The reports all pointed to a scared, scarred, disfigured little pig who for some reason everyone thought was worth saving.
On April 2, 1994 Marcie (my wife) and I set out on our journey to pick up “my pig”. Well we didn’t start right away. First, I passed out. Seems our dentist, who later left his practice over his personal creative use of drugs, had not been too solid when he did my root canal the day before. Anyway, with me in great pain, we headed to Fremont where we picked up an abandoned pig at that shelter to deliver to a his new adopted owner in Tracy. It was then off to Modesto to meet my new “son”. They wouldn’t let us get him from the kennels. They insisted on carrying him out. We heard him coming. A screaming grayish twisted mass of fury. They were holding him by his front legs and literally threw him into the crate. I think they were afraid that if we looked to closely, we’d give him back. When we finally got the crate settled in the truck all we could see through the front grill was a scraggly looking little pig with crooked teeth that crossed like sabers, standing tall with all the dignity that one could muster under the circumstances and saying with his big brown eyes, “Let’s get this show on the road.”
We still had two more pigs to pick up and deliver to new homes. Marcie had decided to make this trip an efficient one. Which is the only reason we hadn’t called the whole thing off when my root canal went bad. For a person who usually doesn’t take drugs for pain I had enough medication in me to disqualify me from racing at Santa Anita.
When we got the “Sheriff of Rottingham” (Riff) home and Marcie got a good look at him. She said, “No way!” Someone was coming the next day to see about entering into “holy pighood”, and she was going to see if they wouldn’t adopt “Riff”. They took one look, and we never heard from them again.
Let me describe what the eyes see. When most pigs stand the end of their snout is perpendicular to the ground. Riff’s snout bends upward putting him with a 45 degree tilt back. His eyes are big and a little protruding with excellent eyesight (unusual for a pig). There is a roll of fluid filled skin that extends across his forehead between his ears. His spine goes straight back until it reaches the end of his rib cage. The ribs on his right side grow back two inches further than on the left and stick out. The spine meanwhile curves to the left into the missing rib area and after a couple of inches of offset does a smooth curve back to the center and almost gets back in line but not quite. He ends up with his butt about 2 inches to the right of his center line. His spine also dips downward giving him a swayback that tilts his nose even higher making his snout almost parallel to the ground. In the area of his spinal curve his left side caves inward where the ribs are missing and his right side is a mass of creases, bubbles of flesh and deformities that defy simple description. This whole area is covered with hairless shiny peeling skin. When we picked him up, he was also suffering from severe mange, pneumonia and worms.
Riff was totally feral. He wouldn’t come near you even for food. He trusted no one. He would eat, but only if no one was near. We did manage to trick him into eating some “Ivomec” treated crackers to get started on treating his mange and possible worms, but we had no idea what on earth to make of the rest of him.
That Monday we took him up to U.C.Davis to get Dr. George’s (a swine specialist) thoughts on this strange creature. My first questions to Dr. George were should we have saved him? Would it be kinder to put him down? Riff just stood away from the three of us, standing tall and dignified, staring straight at us, looking somewhat like Charlie Chaplin’s “little tramp”. Dr. George didn’t answer, but crouched down to get a little closer to eye level, and with 15 feet between them they held eye contact for what seemed like eternity. When he stood up he merely said that Riff had too much life to be allowed to die. We left him at Davis, and they diagnosed that he had been born with spina bifida, not burned. He got neutered. He passed a dead 8” worm (the “Ivomec” was working). They started antibiotics for the pneumonia, and Dr. George used this unusual little creature for one of his class lectures until Riff bit and broke the microphone ending the lecture for the day. Dr. George still tells that story.
Marcie spent an hour or so a day for the next month sitting with Riff and trying to tame his wild ways so we could introduce him to our other pig, T.S.Piggliot. We were worried that T.S.’s bigger size and Riff’s possibly fragile spine would make a bad combination.
By mid-May Riff’s color had started to change from mange gray to black with a little hair. His white socks and the white spot on his nose were standing out and he was starting to take on the look of dignity that he always felt he had. The runny nose would plague him and us for the next two years with nothing really able to control it. Riff, however, soon discovered that he could take his upward facing launch tubes, sneeze and send a large glob of pig snot about ten feet with accuracy. Usually the target was any plate with food on it or even food being eaten by hand. It was great to see everyone scrambling to cover their plates or shield their snacks whenever Riff approached. Of course a successful launch usually resulted in dinner becoming “pig snacks”.
By the end of June, Riff was part of the household. T.S. wouldn’t totally accept Riff but he would allow Riff to sleep just outside the sleeping area. Riff’s acceptance of people has been a slower progression. About the time I think that Riff has become as close to us as he can get, he comes up with a way to show us even more love.
T.S. is gone now, but we have three other rescue pigs, Chuckles, George and Standlee. (At this writing we are down to one other rescue pig. George died suddenly at 13 years of age in 2007 and Chuckles’ long battle with arthritis ended in 2008 at 15 years of age.) All are bigger and stronger than Riff, but Riff is boss. He runs a great little herd. We estimate that Riff is at least seventeen years of age now, but up until the last year he was still running, spinning and playing like a piglet. It would scare us to death when he would spin into walls or slide across the family room and down the two stairs into the sunroom. He would race through the house, up his ramp and through the yard spraying gravel like a teenager with his first car.
His time spent in the wild has taught him things our other pigs don’t know about. He will stand on his back feet and “climb or lean into” a small sapling tree until it bends to the ground and then straddle it, holding it down with his body until he has stripped it of leaves. Only a branch remains sticking out of the ground. At first I thought we’d been invaded by leaf cutter ants. On one occasion Marcie saw him shaking his head. As she approached she saw he had something in his mouth. When she went to reach for it she noticed two birds legs sticking out which quickly disappeared as he swallowed. The other day I went to feed him a snack, and he spit out a mouthful of well chewed feathers. He knows how to survive.
To me the real miracle of Riff is that he is alive at all. An animal born deformed would usually be killed. A small handicapped animal in the wild would usually die. A shelter taking in an unusual deformed animal will usually put it down, not search to find a rescue. (At that time the CPPA Rescue had just started and very few people knew how to contact us.) A rescue agreeing to take such an animal would be rare. Such an animal could probably not be adopted out. Our member from Oakdale, Dr. Tanner of Olde Town Veterinary Hospital, or Dr. George of U.C.Davis could have said, “He’ll suffer too much”, and we would have let him die.
What is Riff like? When strangers come to visit they tend to avoid him at first, but if they stay long enough, they find that they can’t stay away from him. Dale Riffle of P.I.G.s, a Sanctuary (an animal sanctuary in West Virginia) after a visit with us, told a friend of ours in West Virginia that we had a pig named the Sheriff of Rottingham, and that if you get down to his level and look him in the eye, “You see human.”
If I’m late getting home from work, he searches the house looking for me. If I sit down to work anywhere in the house, he is soon laying by my side. If I'm in my desk chair, he will come in and push the lever that lowers the seat with his snout so I can scratch him better when he lies down. If by ten o’clock, I’m not on the floor watching the news with him flush against me, he will come find me and pull on my pant leg until I join him.
Up until Chuckles’ death Riff and he were inseparable. They slept intertwined on a mattress in our family room. The day after Chuckles died Riff showed up in our bedroom and flopped against my side of the bed. I tossed him a blanket and the next night I had a bed there for him. It’s no longer called the master bedroom, it’s now the “Master’s” bedroom. Hopefully he’ll honor our lease and not evict us.
(As I've added some photos to this story, I thought I would also update it to August 2011. Riff is still alive and well, though his back makes it very difficult for him to get up. We estimate that he is either at or approaching his 20th year. He still sleeps at the foot of our bed and wakes me every morning so we can read the paper together. My wife and I have decided that he's waiting for us to die so he can have the house.)
What is Riff like? The beauty of the oyster lies in the pearl within.
"The paradise of my fancy is one where pigs have wings." G. K. Chesterton