Crystal residents Breeka Li and Jakob Eekhoff talk about life with their pot-bellied pig, George, and clear some common misconceptions about the species
By Laci Gagliano
Sun Post Newspapers
Stereotypes about domesticated farm animals like cows, pigs, sheep, goats, and chickens have long permeated popular culture, taken hold of common vernacular, and effectively molded public beliefs about barnyard creatures. As animals bred almost exclusively for human consumption or service, farm animals have ironically been enlisted to take on the burden of symbolizing the more unflattering qualities found in humans.
Although they’re widely known to be intelligent, pigs have historically gotten an unfair rap from the stereotypes, serving as a widespread emblem for filth, gluttony, and lack of self-control. Idioms like “pigging out,” “pigsty,” “hogging,” or even just “being a pig” easily stand on their own as varying degrees of insult.
Even classic literature throws pigs under the bus; in George Orwell’s dystopian “Animal Farm,” the pig characters served as allegories for Josef Stalin and Leon Trotsky, a portrait of a pig’s presumed gluttony and brain power crossing over.
By contrast, there’s also a more endearing, childish variety of sentiments surrounding swine. The novel “Charlotte’s Web” gave children the lovable character Wilbur, immortalized by his spider friend Charlotte after she spun a message in her web championing Wilbur as “some pig.”
The rational ground between humans and pigs comes not from popular culture but from those people who raise pigs.
Breeka Li and Jakob Eekhoff are a couple who moved to Crystal from Champlin after deciding to adopt a pet pig and learning that Crystal allows them kept as pets, unlike Champlin.
They talked about what pig parenting is like as their 3-year-old pot-bellied pig, George Washington, snorted and grazed on oats tossed onto the grass. Named after the first president because he was born just outside of Hudson, Wisconsin, on President’s Day, Li and Eekhoff decided to adopt George because of their mutual allergies to cats and dogs. A woman Li works with sold George to the couple as an anniversary present.
As advocates for ethical treatment of animals, Li and Eekhoff said they’d especially like for more people to become better educated about pigs and recognize where the myths begin and end.
“It’s surprising who has the most misconceptions,” Eekhoff said. “Most of the people I’ve met, farmers, know about pigs – like they’re not actually dirty – and they respect them. But it’s all the people in places like the suburbs who have no idea about them because they don’t spend any time around them, and because of what they see on TV.”
Perhaps the most prevalent misconception is that pigs command filth. What people may be surprised to hear, the couple said, is that George prefers keeping quite clean.
Li said he is compliant with bathing, idly licking ketchup off the shower wall as a distracting treat while he’s washed, and will sometimes even ask for a bath himself by standing near the tub.
“Surprisingly, he doesn’t like mud,” she said.
“He doesn’t like rain. If it’s raining, he won’t go outside to go to the bathroom,” Eekhoff added.
Pigs are also particular about where they conduct their business, typically choosing the farthest away area from their living quarters as possible, Eekhoff said.
“The house training is super easy. They go by scent, and they’re naturally not wanting to be around their own excrement, so they go to the farthest away spot possible,” he said. “He goes in the same far corner of the backyard.”
Li said the actual smell most pigs give off may also come as a surprise.
“Their natural odor smells like maple syrup, which invites certain jokes,” she said. “No matter what, he doesn’t smell bad.”
Eekhoff said the maple smell is fairly noticeable to many people who meet him. “It’s not really well-known, but everybody brings it up,” he said.
George not only smells better than some people, but also eats more healthily.
“They don’t eat everything,” Li said, putting yet another myth to rest. For instance, he won’t eat McDonald’s pancakes. “If he won’t eat them, you shouldn’t,” Li pointed out, noting George’s taste for wholesome nourishment.
“He eats a lot of fresh fruits and vegetables, plus a half cup of pelleted food for protein,” Eekhoff said, clarifying that it’s for nutritional value, not to fatten him up the way hog feed is often used.
At one point, George devoured two whole green bell peppers in a row from Eekhoff’s hand, having grown tired of his oats. He is also very food-motivated and loves treats, Li said, which George earns with an array of tricks.
“The ones he’s got down are spin and sit. He’s got wait down to a point, which is really hard to teach a pig. He knows how to take puzzle pieces out of a puzzle. He does bowling, but with his head. He knows how to play the piano, and knows his primary colors,” she said.
Li and Eekhoff described a game in which George plucks certain toys out on command based on their color. They mix it up for him so he’s not using repetition, but rather remembering the names of the actual colors.
“(Pigs) have really good memories,” Eekhoff said.
The piano George plays is a tiny, colorful four-key piano made for toddlers. He’s no Ray Charles, but his compositions are as good as someone playing with a wet snout can be. George eagerly taps the keys with his nose, then looks up for his treat as the notes ring out.
Li said pigs rank high on the mammalian intelligence scale, with a level comparable to a 3- to 5-year-old human. She and Eekhoff told a story about George’s carefully crafted message of dissatisfaction after a change of schedule required George to be home alone during the day.
“Jakob’s a pipefitter, and he got laid off for a couple weeks. I was still going to work full-time hours, but George had supervision all the time and a buddy to hang out with,” Li said. “Jakob went back to work the same day I went back to school, and George was not happy with that, so he took my backpack out of the closet that it was staying in, along with Jakob’s tackle box, brought them out, unzipped them all, and flung everything all over the living room. I thought that was interesting, because those were the two things he saw us with the most. He thought, ‘oh, those must be important to them.’”
“The hardest part is that they’re very intelligent. Because they’re very intelligent, they get bored easily, and like a toddler, if they’re unsupervised and bored, they’re going to find something to entertain themselves, digging through cupboards or something like that,” Eekhoff said.
“He likes pots,” Li added. Eekhoff described how George used to channel his inner Keith Moon by pulling pots and pans from the cupboard and bang them around on the floor before the couple secured the cupboards with baby gates, ending his drumming career.
To show revenge against his greatest enemy, the vacuum cleaner, George once knocked it over and defecated on it. In the animal world, that’s a major insult.
Pig ownership does come with its challenges.
“Just like a toddler, they have good days and bad days,” Li said. “Some days he’s awesome, he listens really well, and he does everything fine. Other days … the term pig-headedness does come from somewhere.”
People who encounter George out and about often take for granted that pigs are complex creatures with boundaries of their own, another challenge Li and Eekhoff must face from time to time.
“People view him as a novelty, which I get. Therefore, people lose all inhibition coming up to him,” Li said. “You have to remember that nobody would ever circle a dog. You can’t do it to him, either. He’s a prey animal. If you circle around him, he’s going to lash out in defense – he’s not a predator, so he’s not as comfortable in himself.”
For George, lashing out isn’t even as aggressive as a dog or cat, but involves a technique borrowed from his wild cousins: charging. The charge is subtle, brief, and doesn’t necessarily involve making contact with the presumed offender, but is one of his only defenses as an prey animal. It’s part of why Li and Eekhoff want people to be aware that it’s unfair to the pig to disrespect its personal boundaries.
With so little exposure to actual pigs, Li and Eekhoff concede it’s no surprise that people become over-excited and sometimes cross boundaries. Perhaps in those moments of meeting George, his presence overrides the proliferation of the myths, momentarily dissolving them in the experience itself because of how unexpected and surreal it is to encounter a real pig in the suburbs.
Nonetheless, the misinformation is a larger, more persistent issue, and Li and Eekhoff hope to educate people.
“The meat industry is behind many of the misconceptions,” Li said. Apart from frustration over misinformation on the humans’ part, she said, some of these inaccuracies could actually be harmful to the animals.
Li explained that contrary to popular belief, there is no such thing as a teacup pig. Teacup pigs are purported, often by breeders, to be a miniature variety of pig, much like teacup varieties of small dog breeds. That kind of marketing or misunderstanding is a good example of the lower esteem with which people unintentionally regard pigs, often unknowingly compromising their well-being for the sake of what seems desirable to people.
“Pigs aren’t regulated because they’re not respected as much. With dogs, they need to be kept until eight weeks. Pigs are the same, they also need to be kept (with their mother) for eight weeks, but breeders will sell them at two weeks old. George’s breeder, who I respect and admire, even thought he was going to stay 40 pounds. He’s over 100.”
Living with a pig has opened both Li and Eekhoff up to a new world.
“If you’d asked me five years ago if I wanted a pet pig, I never would have thought of it. It really does change the way you look at animals, especially farm animals. He’s as well-mannered as any dog, and a lot of people just don’t realize how smart and affectionate they really can be,” Eekhoff said.
Li was inspired to speak out on behalf of animals. As a professional in the environmental field, she’s well-informed about the correlations between the agriculture industry and the environment.
“I’ve really done some research into big agriculture and the treatment of animals, and I’ve become more of an advocate for (the animals),” she said.
She and Eekhoff have focused more on consuming sustainance-based, rather than conventional meats. Eekhoff said he’s cut back on pork, while Li has cut it out completely.
“We rely more on sustainable food now versus big agriculture,” she said. “My mom was vegetarian when I was growing up, so I was trained to eat other things. When we got (George), I did stop eating pork altogether. I wasn’t big on pork anyway because of my background, but being in the environmental field and knowing that portion of the environmental externalities to big agriculture, then meeting George, I stopped it completely.”
“I’m not going to change the whole world by not eating pork, but I would encourage people to do small farms. It’s so easy. There are so many places around here that do CSA shares,” Li said.
Contact Laci Gagliano at [email protected]