METHUEN, Ma. –– Georgenia Murray’s daughter begged her for a mini pig after seeing one online.
The Massachusetts mother finally caved.
Several months and $2,500 later, the Murrays found out firsthand that the "mini pig" wasn’t going to stay so miniature after all.
“He ended up being close to 200 pounds,” Murray said. “He just kept growing and growing and growing.”
It turns out to be – quite literally – a growing problem. After celebrities like Ariana Grande and Miley Cyrus got pet pigs within the past few years, animal shelters across the country are now facing an influx of fully-grown pigs from owners who claimed they were duped.
“I was fooled and I'm hoping that other people aren't fooled the way I was,” Murray said. “There are no super micro mini pigs. There are no teeny weeny pigs that are going to stay small. It's all untrue.”
She said the breeder, whom her daughter found online, claimed her special breed of the potbelly pig would not get any larger than 20 pounds. By the time Lucas the pig hit 200 pounds, Georgina said she was forced to surrender him to the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
Mike Keiley, director of adoptions at the Massachusetts SPCA, said they have been inundated with calls from pig owners who say they do not have enough room for a full-sized pig.
He said they have taken in 96 unwanted pet pigs in the past five years.
“People are expecting to get very small pigs that can live in their house and be able to care for them like they would a dog,” Keiley said. “And what we're seeing is that people are starting to realize that mini pigs don't really exist."
In Virginia and Arizona, Pig Advocates League Vice President Anna Davis said pig sanctuaries have taken in hundreds of unwanted full-sized potbelly pigs over the past few years. In addition to celebrity trendsetters, Davis also blames viral videos.
“They’ll see this video of this little tiny piglet and it's playing in the grass or it's kind of a stuffed animal or a little kid and it's so precious,” Davis said. “But what they don't realize is that it is a little baby piglet and it's going to grow up.”
The Murray family is now out $2,500. The breeder they bought Lucas from online has now gone AWOL and the phone number’s been disconnected, Georgenia said.
But she said this is about more than money.
“To be honest, it was heartbreaking for my daughter because to think, to give up an animal we had for over three years now [we] had to find somewhere for him to go. He’d done nothing wrong. He was a nice pig, we just didn't have the room for him anymore.”
Meanwhile, Davis said that it’s not just heartbreaking for the humans.
“They have emotional intelligence, they have feelings and they become very attached to their families. So when they lose their family they don't understand why and they grieve their loss. And I've had pigs come here that have actually cried,” Davis said.
Yet some groups of breeders proudly market their pigs online as minipigs. The American Mini Pig Association claims they do in fact exist –– it just depends on your definition of mini.
“Data collected by the American Mini Pig Association defines mini pigs as 15-20 inches tall and 60-150 pounds at a healthy body condition,” wrote the association’s vice president Kimberly Gilbert-Chronister in an emailed statement. She acknowledged terms like “teacup,” “micro” or “nano” are indeed deceptive marketing tactics.
The American Mini Pig Association set forth a stringent code of ethics that its network of breeders must adhere to, which includes refraining from using those terms. The code also states that breeders must not misrepresent the size of their pigs, must be traceable online and must be willing to take back a pig for the duration of its life.
Back at the Memphis-based Pig Advocates League, Davis said less reputable breeders will starve the pigs to keep them small –– and instruct their would-be owners to do the same.
“Now, you can go on the internet and search right now and find lots of tiny pigs, but what the average person doesn't know is that those tiny pigs are being starved. They are given a very limited or restricted diet, sometimes a quarter cup of food a day,” Davis said.
According to the National Geographic, since 1998 the number of mini pigs in the United States and Canada has risen from 200,000 to perhaps up to a million.
“The thing that keeps us up at night about this topic," said Keiley of the Massachusetts SPCA, "is that we're getting so many more phone calls than we can possibly help with.”
Georgenia hopes others will learn from her mistake.
“It's basically like losing a member of your family. You get attached to it, you feed it, you love it, and then all of a sudden you can't take care of it anymore,” she said. “It's a horrible feeling.”