Joan van Ark and Friends: University Pigs Graduate to Greener Pastures

One evening in late May of 2006, six piglets, ranging in age from two months to four months, stepped out of a transport van and into a cozy pen in our Northern California Shelter’s hospital building. Though weak, coughing, and still sutured from recent surgeries, the youngsters appeared eager to take on the new life before them.

Just a few days earlier, they had faced a decidedly bleaker future. The piglets were living at a university veterinary hospital, where they had been used as teaching tools. After students had performed practice hernia operations on them, the animals, identified only by numbered ear tags, were no longer of any use to the school. They were to be sold at auction, the first step in a journey leading inexorably to the slaughterhouse.

That is the end met by countless farm animals used in university veterinary classes every year. Some schools have their own facilities for breeding and raising animals specifically for student use; others borrow subjects from local farmers and return the animals once students are done with them.

Regardless of their provenance, all such animals are viewed as disposable materials, existing merely to serve a function in the educational process. Sometimes, however, a human participant in that process steps beyond her own role as a student and becomes a lifesaver. One of the members of the class that operated on the piglets recognized them not merely as bodies, but as fellow creatures with feelings and personalities of their own. Learning what awaited them, she petitioned for their lives to be spared. And, learning of their need for a home, we gladly opened our doors.

The morning after the young pigs arrived at our Northern California Shelter, we watched them rise for their first sanctuary dawn, which they greeted with reckless joy. At Farm Sanctuary, the ear tags came off for good, and Numbers 55, 56, 57, 58, 59, and 60 became our dear friends Simon, Cesak, Stacey, Charlotte, Johnny, and Joan van Ark.

Though safe from the cruelties of exploitation, two of the piglets were not yet out of the woods. Simon had suffered so much tissue damage during his ordeal at the university that he required a second surgery. When this operation failed to relieve his suffering and no other treatment options remained, we knew the kindest thing we could do was to help this sweet piglet to a peaceful end.

Even as we mourned Simon, however, our other invalid gave us reason to celebrate. Cesak, who had caught an infection during his surgery at the school, also required a second operation, but he made a full recovery. With lots of attention from his new caregivers, this loving, vivacious pig flourished, joining feisty Stacey, laid-back Charlotte, light-hearted Johnny, and brave Joan among the shelter’s other rescued pigs. No longer surgical learning tools, the close-knit friends became teachers to their caregivers and visitors, demonstrating how to embrace life with an open heart each and every day.