Long past being ‘adorable’ teacups, abandoned potbellied pigs roaming wild in southern Delaware

Listen 1:43
A potbellied pig grazes in the grass behind a fence.

A potbellied pig grazing in the spring grass yard. (Bigstock)

Potbellied pigs are big and elusive, and they’re running loose, often in feral packs, around southern Delaware.

Abandoned by their owners, these roaming stray pets tear up lawns, gardens, and native plants. They disrupt other wildlife, and risk carrying endemic diseases, such as salmonella and swine flu, to other animals and people.

And every day, it seems, state agricultural officials say they’re receiving another call about these huge animals being spotted in residential, rural, and public lands in Kent and Sussex counties.

But when they’re caught, no one wants them, so in recent months state veterinarians have had to kill about a dozen.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

Often marketed as micros, teacups, minis, pockets, and pygmies, at two months of age these cuddly pets, who can live indoors or outdoors, only weigh about 35 pounds, about the same as a mid-sized adult dog.

But they can grow to a whopping 200 pounds, and live more than 20 years.

That reality leads many owners — once the allure has gone and especially after the pigs have big litters of babies — to set them free to ramble into nearby yards, fields, and parks, officials said this week.

That’s when the Department of Agriculture issued an alert, urging owners not to set their pigs free, but to call 302-698-4561 for guidance on securing or housing them, spaying or neutering, or animal identification.

“I love them, don’t get me wrong,’’ said state veterinarian Dr. Karen Lopez. “They’re adorable, they’re precious as tiny little piglets.”

“But as they get older they’re not as attractive to adopters. And they may have already developed behavior problems. So the rescues don’t want to take these animals. But they’re not food animals, so livestock auctions won’t take them either.”

‘Pigs are paying for the irresponsibility of their owners’

So how many wandering potbellied pigs are out there in Delaware?

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

Lopez can only speculate.

“I think that there are more out there than I know about,” the veterinarian said. “And that’s what’s so concerning to me. I only know about the ones that people call about. Could there be 100 pigs out there? Could there be 200 pigs out there? I don’t know. Maybe it’s not that much, but I think I do think there’s more than we know about when we do get a call from a constituent.”

Dr. Karen Lopez says it’s been heartbreaking for her and her fellow state veterinarians to have to euthanize unwanted potbellied pigs. (Courtesy of Lopez)

Local animal shelters only take cats and dogs, so that has left Lopez and her staff with the “devastating” task of putting down pigs that livestock welfare investigators have been able to find and catch, but whose owners were not able to be located, even after posting public notices.

“The three of us that worked on this were totally emotionally exhausted and tearful for an entire week,’’ Lopez said, “It is a shame because pigs are paying for the irresponsibility of their owners.”

Susan Magidson, president of the nationwide Pig Placement Network and owner of Ross Mill Farm boarding center for pigs in Bucks County, Pa., says her matchmaking website currently lists about 800 potbellied pigs. She says Delaware’s situation isn’t unique.

“There is definitely an increase of pigs who are being dumped into wooded areas or neighborhoods in the region,’’ Magidson said.

A woman kneels on the floor in a living room next to a potbellied pig.
Susan Magidson of the Pig Placement Network in Bucks County, Pa., says too many people are abandoning their potbellied pets. (Courtesy of Magidson)

Breeders and private owners, “with or without intent, didn’t recognize that they needed to spay or neuter,’’ she said. “So they ended up with unwanted pregnancies, unwanted litters, and then trying to rehome them, they put an ad on Craigslist or whatever, and they are not finding homes for them. And then at some point in time, I believe these people are letting them loose.”

“But when you’re talking about these little ones going feral and reproducing, the problem becomes immense.”

Get daily updates from WHYY News!

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal