10/24/2011 01:15 EDT | Updated 12/24/2011 05:12 EST

A Pig's Sanctuary


Belle the pot-bellied pig has found sanctuary-within-a-sanctuary, in her human caretakers' spacious living room. She is a winsome pig who happily greets visitors and encourages belly rubs by rolling over onto her back and snorting with pleasure. But in the pig pen Belle had a problem; a male bullied her, kicking her out of her sleeping quarters and keeping her away from the hay. Finally Susan and Brian Morris, who operate Snooters, a farm animal sanctuary in Ontario, Canada, solved the problem by bringing Belle into their home.

It takes only minutes to become accustomed to a pig scampering around the room, which is decorated with pig artwork and statuettes. What about housetraining? "Oh, she goes to the door when nature calls," Susan explains but adds wryly that Belle doesn't squeal to get your attention and if you don't happen to notice her at the door, she'll try to hide her tinkle in the living room rug.

The Morris' first indoor pig was also the first porcine denizen of Snooters: Gracie, a Yorkshire, a common breed in factory farms like the one she was born into. Gracie was born tiny and suffered the usual fate of struggling piglets: rejection by her mother and siblings. When she then gashed her leg, the farm staff did not bother to treat it. Why spend time and money on a worthless piglet when they could just dispatch her by "thumping?"

What, you may wonder, is thumping? Just what it suggests: grabbing the little creature by her back legs and bashing her brains out against the concrete floor, killing her. But before little Gracie could be thumped, a sympathetic worker smuggled her out in her handbag, and the little piglet entered Susan and Brian's life.

When they met Gracie, she was three-weeks-old and ill with a Streptococcus suis infection. The Morrises treated her with high-dose antibiotics, but this kind of strep can cause arthritis, and in Gracie's case it did. Today, at nearly 800 pounds, Gracie is afflicted with a swollen, arthritic front leg. Perhaps that's what also makes her so unpredictable, sometimes affectionate and sweet but sometimes an angry pig who likes nothing better than to chase and bite her human caretakers.

But for the first months of her life, until she weighed in at 250 pounds, Gracie lived inside the house. It wasn't easy. The problem wasn't cleanliness; Gracie was fully housetrained. But she was an obsessive foodie, and if she thought there was food under the sofa, she'd upend it and dump all the contents onto the floor. Susan and Brian took to sneaking snacks and running with them into their bedroom, slamming and locking the door so that Gracie, snorting and pawing and slamming her large body against it, couldn't get in before they finished eating.

But neither "Inner Sanctum" Gracie nor Belle was Snooters' first pig. That was Valentine, the pot-bellied pig "who started it all," Susan says, adding ruefully, "Have I ever evolved! I bought Valentine from a breeder and then learned all about pigs and their background, especially the gruesome factory farms where "thumping" piglets to death is standard procedure." Thanks to Valentine, Susan and Brian became pig-savvy and slowly transformed their charming country retreat into Snooters Pig Sanctuary.

Snooters now has a dozen pigs, nine pot-bellies rescued from humane societies, and three (including Gracie) rescued from factory farms. Shy and sweet Forrest and his more dominant brother Earl are potbellies rescued from a backyard breeder who sold his "wares" to people holding private BBQs. When Susan bought them, the breeder grabbed them by the legs and, as their mother watched silently, carried them upside down to the car, where he threw them into crates. Before Susan drove off with her precious cargo, she approached the sad-faced sow and told her, "They are forever safe."

Poppy and Flossy are Yorkshires from factory farms, Flossy saved from slaughter only because of her unusual looks: large flat ears, and one brown and one blue eye. From the piggly perspective, Flossy was low on the pecking order, ate only leftover food and was, in Susan's words, "one very sad little girl" until a sympathetic worker saved her. Flossy was an injured piglet who, like Gracie, was rescued just before she was to be thumped. She is now healed and healthy, a "close talker" and just a tad pushy.

These fortunate pigs share their rural haven with other animals: two horses, Harley and Dolly, rescued from slaughterhouses, two Jersey bull cows rescued from a dairy farm and doomed by their gender to be bobby calves slaughtered days after birth or raised as veal calves, arguably a worse fate. One of them, Ashli Taylor, arrived with his umbilical cord still intact.

There are also two sheep, Timmy and Tommy, and ten battery hens known as "The Girls." During a recent visit, one of The Girls watched a visitor sweeping the henhouse stairs then waddled over and brushed away the remaining bits of hay, finishing the job.

For its animal residents, Snooters is a sanctuary. For visitors, Snooters is a living reminder of what an animal's life can be, how enterprising and energetic a battery hen can be, how clever and fun-loving a pig, how jolly and playful a horse or a sheep. Inside Snooters, the horror of factory farms and slaughter recedes; it provides respite and serenity to the animal rescuers but also hope and relief to those who despair about humanity's treatment of its fellow animals. As a Snooters' plaque proclaims, "Wonderful Things Happen Here."