It's long been accepted that a dog is man's best friend, but the Covid pandemic led people to seek alternative friendships — and so began the craze of pet pigs.
Sales of puppies soared in the early phases of the pandemic, driving up canine prices, but lockdown also led to a spike in the number of pigs being bred for pets.
Now animal welfare campaigners have noticed a rise in pet pigs being abandoned, sometimes in the cruellest of ways.
Cathy Davey, co-founder of the only pig shelter in Ireland, My Lovely Pig Rescue, says the country is in the midst of a "pig crisis".
“It’s a complicated issue. It’s very strange how we treat pigs,” she said.
These pigs would have been “cuddled and kissed” as piglets and would have “understood what love and affection are”, said Ms Davey.
My Lovely Pig Rescue started out with just two pigs but has grown to 131 pigs in its care, the majority of which are pet pigs.
Last month, the shelter took in 31 pigs in just over a week, four of them pregnant and due to give birth in January. Each pig can give birth to 10 to 15 piglets.
My Lovely Pig Rescue, like most animal shelters across the country, is overcapacity, with costs spiralling out of control.
“It’s because of the number of pigs bred during Covid to facilitate people who wanted to get pet pigs. These people very soon realised that they didn’t have the setup or the means, or probably the interest, to properly care for these animals,” she said.
Ms Davey said the rescue took in as many of the unwanted pigs as possible but eventually, the numbers “became too much”.
"People are moving pregnant sows and boars around to people who are then breeding them thinking they can sell on the piglets," she said.
She said pigs are being abandoned in forests, bogs, and even gardens.
"We’ve had two people that had pigs thrown over their walls." She added that both pigs were pregnant.
Pigs that come into Ms Davey’s care are rarely neutered, and with two to three litters of up to 15 piglets each year, and people no longer wanting them for pets, this has led to a national “pig crisis”, according to Ms Davey.
“For the people who have surrendered pet pigs to us, which has been an awful lot of people, the story we hear the most is ‘we got two pigs and we were told they would stay small'," she said.
People wanting so-called "micro-pigs" is a huge cause of the crisis, added Ms Davey.
“Anyone who knows pigs knows there’s no such thing as a tea-cup pig, or a micropig. We have smaller breeds but they’re only classifications,” she said.
“It’s not an honest thing for sellers to say the pig will stay 50kg, they all go up to 120kg. I think the smallest pig we have is 80kg,” she said.
Ms Davey said pigs are extremely intelligent creatures that thrive on routine and mental stimulation to avoid depression or stress.
“A lot of the pigs that we have now know their names and they know their routine,” she said.
“They have a huge vocal range. There are loads of conversations and things you can understand from what they’re trying to articulate,” she said.
“They’re very vulnerable and very sensitive but people don’t know that because they’re quite noisy and they’re very excited when there’s food,” she said.
My Lovely Pig Rescue’s adoption process is robust, according to Ms Davey, with applicants required to undergo “piggy training” to cover all necessities in pig care.
“The amount of people who give up their pigs is so huge, we couldn’t in all good conscience just hand them out,” she said.
Amid countless tales of animal cruelty and neglect, there have been some heartwarming rescue stories.
Two pigs that were dumped in a bog in Laois have since found a forever home with Dublin woman Nina Lindsay, who packed and moved to her small cottage in Waterford when the pandemic arrived.
“We were very fortunate to have a little cottage down the country because we lived up in Dublin. We didn’t know how long it was going to last and all of a sudden we were both made redundant so we came down here,” said Nina.
She says that adopting pigs Ruby and Belly was the best thing she has ever done.
“There were so many pigs, I could have brought them all home,” she said.
“Obviously, somebody thought they weren’t going to get as big as they did because people were buying potbellied pigs thinking that they were miniature,” she said.
Ruby and Belly immediately settled into their new lives in Waterford.
“Now, they’re just part of the family. They knock on the front door if they want a bite and they roam around the farm,” she said.
Nina's adopted family of animals has grown to include a number of other farm animals and dogs.
“I think with all of them having their own rescue story, they all just get along like a dream and those two girls [Ruby and Belly] are no exception. They’re amazing,” she said
Despite being sisters, Ruby and Belly are very different pigs, with Nina saying “one is bold and one is good”.
“Ruby is the follower and Belly is the instigator. Belly has broken into our vegetable patches and then Ruby followed her in,” she said.
“Ruby is so gentle. When I give them blueberries, Belly would consume your whole hand if you left it there too long but Ruby gently takes one berry at a time. They have completely different personalities but they get on like a house on fire,” she said.
Both are “ridiculously-intelligent” problem solvers, according to Nina.
“I bought them dog toys that you put treats into. They have it done in seconds. They’ve learned to roll it around and knock it against the tree a few times so that the treats just fall out,” she said.
Despite Ruby and Belly’s summertime mud baths, Nina said the clean reality of pigs was surprising.
“People think pigs are dirty but you should see their bed. It is absolutely spotless and they have it made up perfectly.
“Pigs will follow anything if they think there is food,” she said.
“They are a little bit stubborn. If they want to do something, they’re going to do it, so if you have a little bucket of food, with their favourite things like apples, blueberries, and carrots, they’ll follow you anywhere. They’ll do anything for you as long as there’s food involved,” she said.
Ruby and Belly were severely underweight and had lost the majority of their fur before they were rescued by My Lovely Pig Rescue. Nina described Ms Davey as a “lifesaver”.
Although many pet pigs are being left on the side of the road, some are experiencing a worse fate, according to Ms Davey.
She said this is a common occurrence.
“That’s actually why I started the rescue,” she said.
Ms Davey said she heard of a man in a pub in Kildare that was passing a 10-week-old piglet around and offering to sell him for meat.
“Another man was horrified, and bought him but didn’t know how to look after a pig, or have a plan for him, and we had to take him in. That wasn’t a shocking story because that goes on an awful lot,” she said.
There seems to be no sign of the number of abandoned pigs declining.
“It’s really bad, we’re supposed to be a rescue who can always have emergency spaces and those emergency spaces are gone and we are the only pig rescue.
“We need people to stop buying pigs and stop breeding them. We are really pushing for laws to be put in place because there aren’t any,” said Ms Davey.