UC Davis graduate, Spring 2022
Major: Wildlife, Fish, and Conservation Biology
Romeo’s earsplitting scream echoed across the ranch, and I was afraid that the children who were there for horse riding lessons might think we were murdering him. Nora and I frantically tried to restrain him, but he kept jumping, twisting, and kicking like a bucking bronco. A mini pig rodeo was not part of our training plan – we were trying to harness train Romeo so he could eventually provide people with therapy outside of his enclosure. Unfortunately, the harness had slid down his torpedo-shaped body, and the neck hole was stuck around his belly. When we finally got the harness off, Romeo acted like nothing had happened and rolled over for belly rubs a couple minutes later. Piglets seem to experience life with an intensity that they share with everyone around them. Their stress and their joy are equally contagious, and they can switch from one to the other in an instant. For the piglets to be successful therapy animals, we will have to both minimize their stress and keep their enthusiasm under control.
From the moment I met the piglets, their therapeutic effects were obvious. When I peered into their crate for the first time, I could almost feel my cortisol levels plummet and my oxytocin and dopamine levels skyrocket. I quickly ran out of superlatives as I watched them scamper around their new enclosure on dainty hooves, tails swinging jauntily while grunting snouts absorbed smells I could never dream of. The piglets were shy at first, sneaking up for a sniff but shrinking away from the hands that yearned to cuddle them. However, the piglets’ intelligence and undying love for food make them quick learners, and they were soon climbing into our laps and accepting pets in exchange for treats. We quickly progressed to harness training, rewarding the piglets for sticking their heads through the neck hole and allowing us to fasten the buckle around their bellies. Children and adults would often sneak away from their horse riding lessons to watch the training sessions, which never failed to spread smiles across their faces. The piglets’ therapy work was off to a promising start.
It wasn’t long before the piglets’ dramatic nature and exuberance presented challenges. The harness incident was the most extreme example of their reaction to stress, but they also squeal when they’re not in the mood to be pet and when they’re impatient for breakfast. They make such a cacophony that my heart races even when they’re just excited. We also discovered that the piglets’ enthusiasm could be hazardous: As they became more comfortable with us, they left a faint constellation of small, hoof-shaped bruises on our thighs, which could look more like black holes when the pigs weigh over 50 pounds. In addition, the piglets were so eager to chomp any morsel they were offered that they often failed to differentiate food from fingers. As I clutched my bleeding finger, I hoped that the pigs really would provide health benefits to humans – and not acupuncture.
Nora and I have been finding ways to reduce the piglets’ stress and make them safer to interact with so we can share their joy with other people. We’re continuing to feed the piglets while we pet them to build a positive association with human touch. We’ve also started rewarding them for staying out of our laps and placing their treats on the ground to discourage biting. After the harness got stuck on Romeo, we adjusted it so it was loose enough to slip all the way down his body. We’ll start tightening the harnesses once the piglets are comfortable wearing them. If we can harness their enthusiasm for life, I believe they could make a positive difference by sharing it with people who need it. So far, the piglets seem to be progressing well, but if we get desperate, we could always leap into the air and squeal to the heavens.
Green Care Blog
Here you can find blog posts from each Green Care Lab intern. We'll be talking about our research process, the benefits of Green Care therapy, and sharing pictures of our work. Follow along with us!