A newsletter from a pig sanctuary had arrived about 4 months ago. Now I was turning onto a rural Arizona driveway, which consisted of two tire lanes in the desert winding between cacti.
The directions I’d been emailed were specific: use the mile post markers and not GPS. It is a very rural area. There was one turn off the two-lane highway, then, after 10 miles, a turn onto an unlined road, and after several more miles, and a turn into the driveway. The rental car grumbled with the bumps and ruts.
After another mile, I started to see fencing, blankets flapping in the breeze, small lean-tos.I saw the main gate and a handful of parked cars, separated by small desert shrubs. I parked, got out, then looked at the directions for how to open the gate, went in.
I get random mailers from animal organizations. I looked at the return address when the newsletter arrived. Hm. Ironwood Pig Sanctuary, Tucson. I liked the little bit of Arizona I’d seen before, I definitely liked pigs, and I’d never been to Tucson. The day evolved from there.
I entered the visitor center, a small building next to the front driveway. It looked like a grandmother’s house crossed with a bomb shelter. There were stacks of cottage cheese plastic tubs stacked three feet high. Hand baskets with 6 bottles of cranberry juice. A tri-fold cardboard display for the sanctuary sat on a table. A phalanx of CB radios sat on a shelf. Plastic tubs held merchandise like t-shirts.
A woman in her early twenties was making peanut butter sandwiches in an adjacent room. Slices of bread were laid out, covering the entire table. I later learned that each pig gets a sandwich every day that contains the pig’s medicine.
I told the woman that I was there to volunteer and that I was a little early. I wasn’t supposed to be there until 9:30, but the town I stayed in the night before was small. After I’d spent an hour and a half drinking coffee at the diner, there was nothing else to do but start down the road. She called Mary on her CB radio. I looked around.
Mary came in after a minute or two. She wore a hoodie and a fanny pack. She could have been 48 or 65. Her skin has that leathery quality of being tanned day after day for years. Oddly, it defies a specific age. She took me on a tour to give me an idea of the place.
I had brought a bag full of donations for the pigs, which I handed to Mary. Creamy peanut butter. Animal crackers. Apples. The previous night, I’d stood in Safeway, slightly agog, asking myself what kinds of apples pigs like and then realizing I probably didn’t need to stress over it.
The sanctuary spreads across 13 acres. 600 pigs live there. I did not see all of the pigs, probably about half. Each pig has a name. Their names are painted on wooden racks that have holes for bowls. This allows the staff to give each pig the right food and medication.
The sanctuary takes in pigs from all over the state. They have a waiting list because there is more demand than they have staff. There were all types of pigs. Pigs that were abandoned on the side of the road. Pigs whose owners had underestimated how big they would get. Pigs that had gotten in fights with dogs. Nursing home pigs. Deployment pigs. Nursing home pigs. Hoarder pigs. Jail pigs. Wild pigs. Breeder pigs. Divorce pigs. Old pigs. Pregnant pigs.
We walked around to a number of the different fenced areas, called fields. Each field had between 10 and 50 pigs in it. Pigs are social animals, but not all of them get along with each other, so staff were always figuring out what pigs did best in which areas. They had occasional fights between pigs. Some of the pigs had tusks, so this resulted in occasional scratching.
Once we had completed the tour, Mary handed me three rakes, a few empty pig feed bags, and got me a wheeled cart. I was going to be cleaning up pig poop ahead of their annual open house the following month.
A number of the pigs had health conditions and were housed in a few special areas, usually in smaller numbers. After clearing out the front area by the visitor center, I headed for one of those fields. This was one of the smaller fields. 60 feet by about 80 feet although I’m not the best judge of distance.
These pigs were pretty relaxed. Most were older. They watched me work from the ground or one of the small hutches.
The morning passed. I raked and shoveled. I was cleaning the poop up with a mulch rake, dumping it into the empty feed bags, then stowing those in the wagon. Over the course of the day, I would shovel about 250 pounds of poop. The place was remarkably clean. Most of the poop was concentrated in lower-traffic areas: under trees, along the sides of fences. I imagined the place smelling worse than it did, even in the heat. The breeze coated everything with a thin dust, which may have helped.
I cleared a portion of a field, and then looked back over a few minutes later. A pig would inevitably have taken advantage of the clean space and dropped fresh poop. Pig poop comes out in small spheres, about the size of a circle when you put your thumb and pointer finger together.
600 shitting pigs versus me. This was not a game I was going to win.
I headed back out to the car, got an energy bar, and sat in the shade of the raised trunk. The CB radio crackled occasionally with staff asking about who’d eaten and what different people were working on.
I saw about 10 other people while I was there. I don’t know if they all lived there, but several probably did. There were a couple of parked travel trailers in the front part of the sanctuary. I was likely the only volunteer that day. Everyone else seemed to move with an understanding of the place. They were also dressed for the desert. Thin cowboy plaid shirts, long sleeves, pants. No shorts. One man wore a bandana to cover his neck.
When I started working again, I needed a change of scenery. I stepped over a fence that came up to about mid-thigh. I was now in a different field. This one was much larger, maybe a 1/4 acre.
There were about 30 or 40 pigs in this field. They were younger and much more social than the older pigs in the adjacent field. These pigs were amiable and curious. A number of them approached me while I worked, gave me a cursory sniff, grunted a little, checking out what I was doing. It’s funny to have a bunch of 150-pound animals giving you the once over while you’re cleaning their house.
It was also fairly quiet. The pigs ambled across the field, sniffed, foraged for straw, laid down on the ground, sighed in contentment. There was a lot of mass but it was moving really calmly. I told them they were nice, sweet, or some other compliment, and then offered a head scratch. Most accepted, only a few were skittish. If they were interested in the head scratch, I would offer to scratch their side. Most would flop over into the dirt at this point and take the belly rub. Pigs are not shy about receiving affection.
My pace slowed in the afternoon sun. I worked a little while, stopped, looked around, scratched a pig, took a selfie. It was a more pleasant, relaxed pace. After two, I called it. Mary told me at lunch that whenever I needed to go was fine. I returned my tools, bags, and wagon, washed up, and then headed back to the car, the metal gate clanging shut behind me.