An hour north of Tucson, you’ll find Mary Schanz, the President and Co-Founder of the Ironwood Pig Sanctuary. She has a few decided employees, the occasional volunteer, and 675 pigs.

Mary knows each of their names. When you walk in, you’ll meet Mama-tot and Tatertot. They had so many Kevin Bacons, they’ve shortened one pig’s name to KB. They have Henry, Ellie Mae, Dixie, and Mary’s personal favorite, Waddles.

Yes they’re all adorable, but that’s not why Mary knows each one. Take Moo for example, who used to be someone’s pet, but was abandoned with her companion Bitsy. It’s because each of these animals has a devastating story that brought them to the sanctuary, that Mary can’t forget.

“It used to be most of our pigs came from homes where people wanted to give them up, because they didn’t know what they were getting into. Really, they didn’t do their homework, and they didn’t know what pigs were like,” Mary explained. “But now, we can’t even take those pigs anymore. Because they’re all strays.”

Mary says instead of even trying to find them a home, many people just set their pigs loose. One pig at the sanctuary was initially left in a park, sleeping on his favorite blanket.

“Usually they show up in somebody’s yard, sometimes they are abandoned” Mary said. “I just got an email from a man who bought a house to flip it, and he found a pig inside it. That’s pretty common, that they just get left in homes when people move.”

Other times pigs end up as strays because they’ve escaped, since their owners don’t understand what it takes to keep them secure.

That’s how Superman, the 600 pound hog ended up wandering around. He showed up at a fire station a few years ago, before he ended up at Ironwood.

The sanctuary has also taken in groups of pigs over the years from hoarding situations and cruelty cases.

In one case, Mary says they rescued 26 pigs from one man’s home. She says they had been sitting in more than a foot of mud. Some of the bigger pigs were laying on a stock tank on top of eachother, with some of the little boys crying and trying to crawl up on top of them. She says the owner threatened to fight them when they rescued the pigs, but couldn’t.

“He bred them. He said it was a line that his mother was developing, the best line of potbelly pig coonie mixes,” Mary said. “In the 22 years I’ve been in this business, it was absolutely the worst rescue I’ve ever seen.”

The fact is, none of the pigs at Ironwood should be here.

As animals, it’s easy to see why people would want to connect with them. Pigs are smart, and they crave companionship. While Claire Graham was at the sanctuary, an entire family of pigs came right up to her and Mary, and laid down at their feet to ask for belly rubs. The mother pig had been a pet at one point, and was pregnant when she and father pig were abandoned by their owner, who was moving. As funny and cute as it was to see half a dozen pigs flop over to demand some lovin’, the reality is they never should have been abandoned in the first place.

Mary says this is a man made crisis, driven by over breeding and lies, like the promise of “mini pigs,” that don’t actually exist.

“People are told they’re going to weigh 30 to 40 pounds, but that simply isn’t true, Mary explained. “In order to keep them that small, they’re starved. And they come to us with terrible legs and bones, because they never got the proper nutrition.”

When they finally get the food they need, these pigs grow, and that’s only the beginning.

A lot ot the pigs that come to Ironwood end up needing serious medical treatment. Some have been attacked by dogs or coyotes. Some have horrible genetics from bad breeding, like one that was missing an entire shoulder. They have one pig named Andre the Giant, who was was severely overweight when he arrived, because his previous owners had grossly overfed him. Now that he’s lost more than a hundred pounds, he’s had two tummy tucks. He’s also had eye surgery three times, because the fat on his forehead kept making him blind. He’s due for a fourth eye surgery soon.

It’s no easy task, but along with expensive medical treatments, every single pig at Ironwood gets fixed. They separate the boars, which are unfixed males, until they can get fixed, very early on, because pigs can start breeding at just a couple months old. Incredibly, they’ve never had an accidental litter at the sanctuary.

But Mary says they can’t be the only ones trying to stop this cycle anymore.

“In the past, we were able to take big groups of pigs because we were growing and we had room,” she said. “But we really can’t take those big groups anymore. I think we’re done, and I don’t know what we’ll do next time.”

Ironwood doesn’t adopt out many of their pigs, since most homes aren’t right for them, but that’s not always the case. They have a strict set of requirements they look for, and they never adopt out a pig knowing it would be alone. It’s either adopt in pairs, or add to your existing pig group.

We asked Mary what the call to action is, since clearly something needs to change, and said there’s really one major message they try to send.

“You should not be breeding these pigs under any circumstances,” Mary said. “If you can’t afford to neuter and you have a breeding pair, separate them. At least do that much, because there’s too many pigs and not enough homes.”

In addition to their 675 pigs, the Ironwood Pig Sanctuary also cares for hundreds of other pigs that they’re keeping in foster homes and on farms throughout Southern Arizona. But the group doesn’t actually get any federal funding. They rely completely on donations from our community. If you’d like to contribute, you can easily make a difference through their website.

Mary also added, if you’re considering getting a pig, you should come to the sanctuary to see what life is really like with them. They also offer tours when the weather allows.