SHEPHERDSTOWN – It’s been 20 years since animal lovers transformed a dairy farm off Persimmon Lane west of here into PIGS, a sprawling, 56-acre retreat where unwanted, abused or neglected pigs, horses, dogs, cats and other domestic animals find life-long care.
This weekend, the PIGS Animal Sanctuary will take note of the landmark anniversary with a creature-centric celebration complete with a gift bag of treats for party-goers to share with PIGS residents.
Each of the volunteers, staff members and other supporters of the non-profit who come to the Birthday Bash for the Animals are asked to make a $10 donation – a “gift to the animals,” explains Melissa Susko, who has been the sanctuary’s on-site executive director since 2002.
The sanctuary’s name comes from its original purpose, as a place for Vietnamese potbellied pigs – animals whose popularity as pets waned as owners found themselves without the space or ability to care for the creatures that grew to 150 pounds or more when fully mature.
“Whether they’re sold as potbellies or micro mini pigs or by whatever name, the fact is they’re still pigs,” said the 43-year-old Susko, who grew up on a small farm and worked as a vet tech in her native Lancaster, Pa., before coming to her post in Shepherdstown. “They get big; they root; they’re just not meant to live inside as house pets.”
In the early 1990s, animal shelters, accustomed to caring for dogs and cats, weren’t equipped to care for pot-bellies, and PIGS stepped in, Susko said. Today, the property is home to about 150 potbellied pigs as well as farm pigs, including many rescued from medical research facilities.
PIGS also cares for cats, dogs, goats, horses and donkeys. Susko says many of the animals arrive with horror stories from their previous lives: animals seized by animal shelters in cruelty cases; malnourished horses; cats abandoned by their owners; dogs mangled after being struck by cars; potbellies kept tied to trees or by hoarders in too-small pens.
Fifteen domestic pigs came to the sanctuary after they were found floating far from their farms following the floods that devastated Iowa last year. Some of the dogs at PIGS had been destined for use in pit bull fights. Other animals came to the retreat when a traveling petting zoo shut down.
One of the highest-profile individuals at PIGS is Billy the Goat, who made headlines four years ago as he roamed Halltown, disrupting the neighborhood as he chomped on homeowners’ shrubbery and flowers, rammed into glass patio doors (battling his own reflection) and engaged in other pesky behavior.
It took Susko two attempts and a tranquilizer dart, but she was able to collect Billy and install him at PIGS. These days, he’s the picture of tranquility, lounging in the pasture with dozens of other goats and Dog, a docile, 700-pound farm pig who spent the first months of his life in a completely sterile environment where he was used in medical experiments.
PIGS is a no-kill facility, providing shelter for animals through the end of their days. “We don’t allow animals to suffer,” Susko said, “but we perform euthanasia only when medically necessary. We would never euthanize because of the cost of care.”
The retreat requires about $230,000 to operate each year, and PIGS doesn’t receive federal, state or local funding, Susko said. Animal feed and veterinary care take up the bulk of the budget.
Private donations allow the sanctuary to continue operations, she said. “A few years ago when the economic downturn hit, we saw our donations drop – we had to put new fencing and all our maintenance projects on hold,” she explained.
But in recent years, donations have begun to nudge upward again. “We’re so grateful for the support we get from the community and nationwide,” Susko said. “We literally couldn’t do what we do without the help of so many people who care about the animals here.”
PIGS also benefits from area restaurants that donate their meat-free food scraps. With the influx of fresh food, Susko can stretch her animal feed farther.
She said she is particularly grateful to Rusty and Pam Berry, owners of the Shepherdstown Sweet Shop Bakery. The German Street bakery sells PIGS T-shirts and other memorabilia and also saves unsold bread and pastries for weekly donations that add interest to the standard PIGS meals.
“Of course, the animals absolutely love getting those treats,” Sukso said. “They’re like anyone else – it’s wonderful to get something special.”
Susko would love to have help from others in the community and she works hard to keep PIGS in the public eye. To raise awareness of the work done at PIGS, Susko regularly hosts open houses and welcomes school groups to tour the sanctuary.
Susko is looking forward to Saturday’s shindig – as well as a $25-per-person cocktail party coming up in September in D.C., also to celebrate the sanctuary’s landmark birthday.
Despite the long hours and the emotionally grueling work, PIGS remains a dream job, Susko said.
“We have animals who come here after such abuse that they don’t make it,” she said. “But in those situations, you remind yourself that the animals at least enjoyed peace and love before they died – in some cases, that’s something they’d never, ever experienced before.
“It makes you cry, but you also realize that being able to do this work is such a blessing.”