What started with concerns over animal welfare devolved into animal warfare after a group of boaters alleged that a porcine rescue mission was in fact a case of pignapping.
It’s a curly tale of best intentions gone awry, dueling groups of animal lovers, threats of boat burning, and allegations of theft, neglect, pig-riding and porcine alcohol abuse.
Until Tuesday, a passel of hogs lived on a small, marshy island in the San Joaquin river near Stockton, California. The pigs – five Yorkshires and one Hampshire – were popular among local boaters and attracted more than 900 fans to a Friends of Pigs on the Delta! Facebook page.
But in recent months, one of the pigs’ most devoted caretakers became increasingly concerned about their health.
“I have a lot of compassion for animals, and I sense when they are struggling,” said Sabine Verelst, a project manager for the city of Stockton who has been delivering food to the pigs weekly for years.
Verelst contacted Farm Sanctuary, a not-for-profit organization that rescues animals from factory farms and slaughterhouses and allows them to live out their lives at dedicated sanctuaries.
The group sprang into action, and staff member Susie Coston organized a two-day rescue mission that required erecting a chute system to shuttle the pigs onto a barge and into a trailer. The swine were taken to the University of California, Davis to be treated at the veterinary hospital, and Farm Sanctuary planned to transfer them to a sanctuary once they received a clean bill of health.
All was seemingly fine, until Friends of Pigs on the Delta got word of the loss of the swine. The Facebook group erupted with accusations of theft and treachery.
“They decided to take it upon themselves to steal pigs that weren’t theirs,” said Blair Hake, a financial adviser and Delta boater who is also the administrator of the Facebook group. “Now UC Davis has some stolen property that I think they have to account for.”
Hake dismissed concerns about the animals’ health and accused Farm Sanctuary of exploiting them to bring home the bacon.
The group did send out a fundraising email about the pigs, but Coston denied they were motivated by money.
“First of all, we’re going to spend a lot more money than we are going to make,” Coston said, pointing out that pigs are the most expensive animals to maintain at their sanctuaries. Further, Coston said that the rescue was arranged in advance with the island’s owner.
“We did not steal them,” she said. “We obtained them by legal means … We just want what’s best for the pigs.”
By Wednesday, the man who originally placed the pigs on the island, Roger Stevenson, had called the San Joaquin sheriff’s department to file a police report.
Stevenson told the Guardian that he had purchased a sow and a boar at a livestock auction and delivered them to the island in February 2014 at the request of the landowner, who was seeking a solution to overgrown vegetation. The current pigs are descendants of the original pair.
Stevenson said that he delivered food to the pigs until they were able to sustain themselves, but Verelst said the very idea that the pigs could be self-sufficient was hogwash.
“Pigs don’t eat grass. They’re not sheep or cattle,” she said.
When the pigs first appeared on the island, Verelst would empty her refrigerator of leftovers and load them into her boat. Soon, she began shopping weekly for up to $200 worth of melons, apples and whole wheat bread. Eventually she switched to dog food, and then livestock feed. “All my family knows I do nothing more than feed the pigs on the weekend,” she said. “They call me ‘pig lady’.”
Hake and other members of the Facebook group also delivered food, but Verelst said that it wasn’t enough, especially during the winter. She was also concerned that successive litters of piglets were dying and alleges that someone slaughtered some of the pigs with a bow and arrow. Then there was the behavior of the tourists, to whom the pigs had become an attraction.
“I’ve seen a lot of rough stuff,” Verelst said. “You always see people trying to ride them, giving them beer, throwing mud at them.” Farm Sanctuary pointed to a Facebook photo showing a man pouring a beer into a pig’s mouth.
Stevenson dismissed concerns about the occasional pint. “I hardly believe that’s neglect,” he said. “I personally drink a beer once in a while, and I don’t think that’s neglect. I don’t think my hogs are alcoholics.”
“They’re the happiest hogs in the country,” he added. “If someone can show me a happier hog, I’d like to know where and how.”
The dispute has been devastating for Verelst, who said she has been bullied by members of the Facebook group. “Frankly I’m not sure if I’m safe going out in my boat anymore,” she said. “One of them said that they wanted to burn my boat.”
And ultimately, it seems that she acted in vain. On Thursday, Sergeant Carey Pehl said the sheriff’s department had determined that Stevenson was the rightful owner, because he “owns the lineage”. Pehl also said the department was not contemplating criminal charges “at this time”.
Stevenson plans to collect the pigs from UC Davis on Friday and take them to his daughter’s house, though he hopes to get permission from the island’s owners to return the pigs to their former habitat.
The hogs had been deemed to be in good health, he said, which confirmed his theory “that a hog raised free range is better off than a hog raised in a pen”.
“Hogs like to be wild,” he said, “just like I do.”