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Micah Danney
Micah Danney

The Woman on Long Island, New York, Who Has Rescued Over 500 Pigs

Micah Danney
Micah Danney

At mealtimes, Janice Skura ambles between the pig pens in the yard of her Long Island home, greeting each of the pigs she's rescued by name as she drops wet food from a bucket into their troughs. She says please when she asks them to move, and thanks them when they do.

“I’m polite to them,” she says. “I just think it’s nice to be acknowledged.”

Skura, 57, lives on an acre of land in a Long Island suburb an hour’s drive from New York City. The property-turned-sanctuary is home to 32 potbellied pigs, all surrendered by owners who couldn’t or didn’t want to care for them.

Janice Skura with two of her pigs

Potbellied pigs, a breed that originated in Vietnam and stays smaller than those raised for meat, were a fad pet in the 1980s; at the height of their popularity, potbellied pigs were sold for tens of thousands of dollars. Breeders continue to list them online today, with unscrupulous sellers advertising them as “teacup” pigs that will stay small. When the pigs grow to weigh between 70 and 100 pounds (or heavier), as most of them do, surprised owners often realize they got much more pig than they bargained for—and that’s when they turn to Janice. Skura estimates she has saved 500 to 600 pigs over the 17 years she’s been running her sanctuary.

“Pigs are not dogs, they’re not cats. You’ll have behavior problems,” Skura says. “Pigs want to be the top pig. They do better off with a herd. Pigs in a herd learn manners, and when they’re an only pig they tend to get fresh.”

I WANT TO LOVE ON ALL OF THEM EVERY DAY

Each day, feeding and poop-scooping comprise the bulk of Skura’s maintenance. The pigs stay quiet until she appears for her once-daily feeding routine around noon. After the pigs have had their lunch, Skura makes another pass with a small rake and scooper, dumping the dense nuggets of excrement down what she calls the poop chute, a pipe sticking out of the ground in her backyard that leads to a defunct cesspool. She distributes fresh hay in each pig’s house as needed, clips hooves, and cuts tusks that have grown to problematic lengths. You can hear her tell each pig “I love you” as she tends to their needs.

“The number of pigs I have is too many,” Skura says. “It’s very hard for me. I want to love on all of them every day and I just physically can’t.”

Janice Skura feeding one of her pigs

Most pigs that end up in Skura’s attentive custody live out their days with her, although she adopts out any that she can find a good home for. Locating a worthy home is no easy task—Skura considers her pigs part of the family, after all.

“You have to make sure you’re going to give the pig a better life than I could give it,” Skura says. So she visits the homes of all potential adoptees prior to adoption and follows up after making a placement to check that the pig is happy and give the new owners any help they may need.

“It breaks my heart,” she says of rehoming her pigs. “It’s like a piece of me is gone. Like right now I could get choked up when I think of some of them that I did give up and I never should have. As much as it’s enriched my life, my life is a living hell when I think of all the ones that I’ll never see again, that loved me and trusted me. We had such a bond, and I just put them in someone’s car and let them drive off.”

THE MINUTE I SAW IT, I WANTED IT

A pig pokes its nose through the fence

Skura was always an animal lover, she says, though her mother only let her have a pet bunny when she was young. As an adult, she spent years working as a caregiver for babies and the elderly. She had wanted to take in foster children, she says, but she got married and had two sons of her own before she had the chance.

“Falling in love with pigs fulfilled that [nurturing] need for me,” she says. It has become her full-time job.

Skura took in her first pig in 2000; at the time, she was rescuing pet rabbits. She felt overwhelmed by her furry charges and visited a local farm to get some help. During the visit, the farm’s owner pulled what looked like a fetus, with umbilical cord still dangling, from inside her coat and asked Skura if she wanted it. It was a three-day-old piglet.

“The minute I saw it, not even knowing what it was, I wanted it,” Skura says. “And I loved it from that minute.”

Skura’s husband, Peter, a union electrician, was into it at first. “I thought the little pigs were, you know—it was cute,” he says. “I wanted the first one just as much as [Janice] did. I thought it would be a great little pet, something different. Never thinking it was going to evolve into this.”

Janice Skura makes the rounds at her potbellied pig sanctuary

Gone are Peter’s dreams of a lush lawn and pristine back patio. After a few early successful adoptions, Peter thought the operation might be scaling back. But he quickly found that these only made room for more rescues.

“I don’t ever see it ending,” Peter says. “I just gave up [asking to scale back]. Whatever.”

He doesn’t share his wife’s passion, but Peter has built fences and pitched in when heavy lifting is needed, like when a pig dies and needs to be buried. (Their graves are 6-foot-deep holes at the top of a wooded hill behind the house.) Above all, Peter knows the pigs make his wife happy.

“I seen her drive all night to take a sick pig somewhere, or go out at 1 or 2 in the morning with my son to go catch a pig that’s running around the streets,” he says.

Their son Stephen, 25, has spent almost his whole life helping care for the pigs. “It actually does teach you a lot of values about taking care of stuff,” he says. “Every parent buys their kid a dog and says, ‘You’re going to clean up after your dog and take it for a walk every day.’ Well, I grew up with, ‘You’re feeding 40 pigs and cleaning up after them every day.’”

THE POLICE WERE STANDING WITH THEIR JAWS OPEN

A pig looks over a fence

Skura’s operation is illegal. Town officials know about it, Skura says, but leave her be because they don’t get any complaints. “I’m so grateful that they kind of cooperate with me,” Skura says.

In nearly two decades, officials have only intervened once. They had received a call about a 600-pound pig, Babe, that Skura took from a nearby animal shelter when he was a piglet. She didn’t know there was a difference between ordinary farm hogs and potbellies. But Babe didn’t top out at 100 or even 200 pounds, and Skura received a letter from the town notifying her that she had been reported for having an agricultural animal at her address. She found Babe another home, and things have been quiet since.

In fact, Skura’s expertise has helped authorities out of binds in the past. She once got a call from police who had raided a property on Long Island’s East End where various animals were being bred and neglected. Dozens of carcasses were found there, and a surviving pig had evaded capture by police officers and workers from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. They wanted help.

When Skura arrived on the scene she immediately got down to business. “I got down on my knees and was saying, ‘hawhawhawhawhaw,’ and the little pig stopped [running away],” Skura says, imitating the airy sound pigs make when they utter a friendly greeting. She inched closer, kept hawhawing, and reached out to scratch his chin, then scratched his belly.

“They were standing with their jaws open,” she says of the officers, “like, ‘What the hell just happened?’”

A pig sits on a front porch, beneath an American flag

Unique animals attract unique people, and a home doubling as a pig sanctuary produces some unusual scenarios. There was the time a bagpipe player and his harpist wife wanted to adopt a pig, so they brought their instruments to make sure the pig they picked wouldn’t be freaked out by the noise. The bagpipes blaring in the driveway woke Stephen, who went downstairs and found the woman sitting on the kitchen floor strumming her harp. Stephen went back upstairs. The couple took two pigs home.

THERE HE WAS IN MARTHA STEWART'S DRESSING ROOM

Some of Skura’s charges find their way into show business. Two separate animal talent agents in Manhattan call when they want a pig for a photo shoot or a TV appearance. Skura has various sizes and colors the casting agents can pick from, and several of her pigs have appeared in magazines like Cosmopolitan and Men’s Health. Skura has provided pigs for Live! With Kelly and Michael, Inside Amy Schumer, and The Martha Stewart Show, to name a few.

At Stewart’s studio, a piglet slipped out of the greenroom while Skura was otherwise engaged.

“I said, ‘Where’s that little pig?’” Skura says. “And then I got up and I didn’t see it in the hallway. I thought, ‘Oh my God.’ I tiptoed down the hall and there he was in Martha Stewart’s dressing room, messing up her shoes. I just quick straightened up her shoes and picked him up and went on.”

The shoots, infrequent though they are, generate some much-needed funds for supplies. Feed costs about $10 per day, and medical expenses can add up to a couple thousand dollars a year (Skura's veterinarian happens to be named Dr. Wilburs). Then there’s hay, wood for fencing repairs, transportation costs—Skura pays for it all out of pocket. She doesn’t ask for donations.

Her giving nature is her defining feature, says Skura’s friend Kathy Montreuil. “She’s an extraordinary woman. She gives selflessly and she gives from the heart, with no expectations from anyone, even from the pigs. If they’re happy, she’s happy,” Montreuil says.

I DON'T WANT TO SEE ANY LIVING THING SUFFER

Janice Skura crouches to care for one of her pigs

Skura buys gifts for people who enter her orbit. She arranges an assortment of snacks on the kitchen counter each morning for Stephen to pick from on his way to work. She tries to work through problems with stressed pig owners who want out; when they insist she take their charges, she has trouble saying no.

“I don’t want to see any living thing suffer,” Skura says. “Even an animal that’s been hit on the road, I jump out and move it over so it doesn’t get run over one more time. Because how would you like it to get run over again and again?”

For all she gives them, Skura says the pigs give back. “They’re my constant,” she says. She’s learned their language and their individual traits, and has let them teach her patience.

“I’ve talked to them and they’ve actually come around,” Skura says. “I know that sounds weird, but I’ve actually explained things to them and then they’ll get up and kind of cooperate with me. It’s crazy, but it’s true. They’re so intelligent.”

Skura wishes more people would see it. “They are the most misunderstood animals in the world,” she says. “If I could just change one person’s mind a day I’d accomplish something. They think [pigs are] filthy. They think they smell. People have told me, ‘Yeah but they eat their own poop.’ They think they’re disgusting.”

Skura rattles off unflattering pig stereotypes: You’re stupid as a pig; you’re disgusting like a pig. “They give them no credit for intelligence,” she says. “There’s a total disregard for the whole swine family and it’s so wrong. They’re wonderful little creatures.”

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If you are interested in adopting a pig or need Janice’s help caring for one you already own, you can contact her at pigs4me@optonline.net.

All images courtesy of Micah Danney

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Penn Vet Working Dog Center
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
New Program Trains Dogs to Sniff Out Art Smugglers
Penn Vet Working Dog Center
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

Soon, the dogs you see sniffing out contraband at airports may not be searching for drugs or smuggled Spanish ham. They might be looking for stolen treasures.

K-9 Artifact Finders, a new collaboration between New Hampshire-based cultural heritage law firm Red Arch and the University of Pennsylvania, is training dogs to root out stolen antiquities looted from archaeological sites and museums. The dogs would be stopping them at borders before the items can be sold elsewhere on the black market.

The illegal antiquities trade nets more than $3 billion per year around the world, and trafficking hits countries dealing with ongoing conflict, like Syria and Iraq today, particularly hard. By one estimate, around half a million artifacts were stolen from museums and archaeological sites throughout Iraq between 2003 and 2005 alone. (Famously, the craft-supply chain Hobby Lobby was fined $3 million in 2017 for buying thousands of ancient artifacts looted from Iraq.) In Syria, the Islamic State has been known to loot and sell ancient artifacts including statues, jewelry, and art to fund its operations.

But the problem spans across the world. Between 2007 and 2016, U.S. Customs and Border Control discovered more than 7800 cultural artifacts in the U.S. looted from 30 different countries.

A yellow Lab sniffs a metal cage designed to train dogs on scent detection.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

K-9 Artifact Finders is the brainchild of Rick St. Hilaire, the executive director of Red Arch. His non-profit firm researches cultural heritage property law and preservation policy, including studying archaeological site looting and antiquities trafficking. Back in 2015, St. Hilaire was reading an article about a working dog trained to sniff out electronics that was able to find USB drives, SD cards, and other data storage devices. He wondered, if dogs could be trained to identify the scents of inorganic materials that make up electronics, could they be trained to sniff out ancient pottery?

To find out, St. Hilaire tells Mental Floss, he contacted the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, a research and training center for detection dogs. In December 2017, Red Arch, the Working Dog Center, and the Penn Museum (which is providing the artifacts to train the dogs) launched K-9 Artifact Finders, and in late January 2018, the five dogs selected for the project began their training, starting with learning the distinct smell of ancient pottery.

“Our theory is, it is a porous material that’s going to have a lot more odor than, say, a metal,” says Cindy Otto, the executive director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center and the project’s principal investigator.

As you might imagine, museum curators may not be keen on exposing fragile ancient materials to four Labrador retrievers and a German shepherd, and the Working Dog Center didn’t want to take any risks with the Penn Museum’s priceless artifacts. So instead of letting the dogs have free rein to sniff the materials themselves, the project is using cotton balls. The researchers seal the artifacts (broken shards of Syrian pottery) in airtight bags with a cotton ball for 72 hours, then ask the dogs to find the cotton balls in the lab. They’re being trained to disregard the smell of the cotton ball itself, the smell of the bag it was stored in, and ideally, the smell of modern-day pottery, eventually being able to zero in on the smell that distinguishes ancient pottery specifically.

A dog looks out over the metal "pinhweel" training mechanism.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

“The dogs are responding well,” Otto tells Mental Floss, explaining that the training program is at the stage of "exposing them to the odor and having them recognize it.”

The dogs involved in the project were chosen for their calm-but-curious demeanors and sensitive noses (one also works as a drug-detection dog when she’s not training on pottery). They had to be motivated enough to want to hunt down the cotton balls, but not aggressive or easily distracted.

Right now, the dogs train three days a week, and will continue to work on their pottery-detection skills for the first stage of the project, which the researchers expect will last for the next nine months. Depending on how the first phase of the training goes, the researchers hope to be able to then take the dogs out into the field to see if they can find the odor of ancient pottery in real-life situations, like in suitcases, rather than in a laboratory setting. Eventually, they also hope to train the dogs on other types of objects, and perhaps even pinpoint the chemical signatures that make artifacts smell distinct.

Pottery-sniffing dogs won’t be showing up at airport customs or on shipping docks soon, but one day, they could be as common as drug-sniffing canines. If dogs can detect low blood sugar or find a tiny USB drive hidden in a house, surely they can figure out if you’re smuggling a sculpture made thousands of years ago in your suitcase.

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Animals
15 Confusing Plant and Animal Misnomers
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iStock

People have always given names to the plants and animals around us. But as our study of the natural world has developed, we've realized that many of these names are wildly inaccurate. In fact, they often have less to say about nature than about the people who did the naming. Here’s a batch of these befuddling names.

1. COMMON NIGHTHAWK

There are two problems with this bird’s name. First, the common nighthawk doesn’t fly at night—it’s active at dawn and dusk. Second, it’s not a hawk. Native to North and South America, it belongs to a group of birds with an even stranger name: Goatsuckers. People used to think that these birds flew into barns at night and drank from the teats of goats. (In fact, they eat insects.)

2. IRISH MOSS

It’s not a moss—it’s a red alga that lives along the rocky shores of the northern Atlantic Ocean. Irish moss and other red algae give us carrageenan, a cheap food thickener that you may have eaten in gummy candies, soy milk, ice cream, veggie hot dogs, and more.

3. FISHER-CAT

Native to North America, the fisher-cat isn’t a cat at all: It’s a cousin of the weasel. It also doesn’t fish. Nobody’s sure where the fisher cat’s name came from. One possibility is that early naturalists confused it with the sea mink, a similar-looking creature that was an expert fisher. But the fisher-cat prefers to eat land animals. In fact, it’s one of the few creatures that can tackle a porcupine.

4. AMERICAN BLUE-EYED GRASS

American blue-eyed grass doesn’t have eyes (which is good, because that would be super creepy). Its blue “eyes” are flowers that peek up at you from a meadow. It’s also not a grass—it’s a member of the iris family.

5. MUDPUPPY

The mudpuppy isn’t a cute, fluffy puppy that scampered into some mud. It’s a big, mucus-covered salamander that spends all of its life underwater. (It’s still adorable, though.) The mudpuppy isn’t the only aquatic salamander with a weird name—there are many more, including the greater siren, the Alabama waterdog, and the world’s most metal amphibian, the hellbender.

6. WINGED DRAGONFISH

This weird creature has other fantastic and inaccurate names: brick seamoth, long-tailed dragonfish, and more. It’s really just a cool-looking fish. Found in the waters off of Asia, it has wing-like fins, and spends its time on the muddy seafloor.

7. NAVAL SHIPWORM

The naval shipworm is not a worm. It’s something much, much weirder: a kind of clam with a long, wormlike body that doesn’t fit in its tiny shell. It uses this modified shell to dig into wood, which it eats. The naval shipworm, and other shipworms, burrow through all sorts of submerged wood—including wooden ships.

8. WHIP SPIDERS

These leggy creatures are not spiders; they’re in a separate scientific family. They also don’t whip anything. Whip spiders have two long legs that look whip-like, but that are used as sense organs—sort of like an insect’s antennae. Despite their intimidating appearance, whip spiders are harmless to humans.

9. VELVET ANTS

A photograph of a velvet ant
Craig Pemberton, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

There are thousands of species of velvet ants … and all are wasps, not ants. These insects have a fuzzy, velvety look. Don’t pat them, though—velvet ants aren’t aggressive, but the females pack a powerful sting.

10. SLOW WORM

The slow worm is not a worm. It’s a legless reptile that lives in parts of Europe and Asia. Though it looks like a snake, it became legless through a totally separate evolutionary path from the one snakes took. It has many traits in common with lizards, such as eyelids and external ear holes.

11. TRAVELER'S PALM

This beautiful tree from Madagascar has been planted in tropical gardens all around the world. It’s not actually a palm, but belongs to a family that includes the bird of paradise flower. In its native home, the traveler’s palm reproduces with the help of lemurs that guzzle its nectar and spread pollen from tree to tree.

12. VAMPIRE SQUID

Drawing of a vampire squid
Carl Chun, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

This deep-sea critter isn’t a squid. It’s the only surviving member of a scientific order that has characteristics of both octopuses and squids. And don’t let the word “vampire” scare you; it only eats bits of falling marine debris (dead stuff, poop, and so on), and it’s only about 11 inches long.

13. MALE FERN & LADY FERN

Early botanists thought that these two ferns belonged to the same species. They figured that the male fern was the male of the species because of its coarse appearance. The lady fern, on the other hand, has lacy fronds and seemed more ladylike. Gender stereotypes aside, male and lady Ferns belong to entirely separate species, and almost all ferns can make both male and female reproductive cells. If ferns start looking manly or womanly to you, maybe you should take a break from botany.

14. TENNESSEE WARBLER

You will never find a single Tennessee warbler nest in Tennessee. This bird breeds mostly in Canada, and spends the winter in Mexico and more southern places. But early ornithologist Alexander Wilson shot one in 1811 in Tennessee during its migration, and the name stuck.

15. CANADA THISTLE

Though it’s found across much of Canada, this spiky plant comes from Europe and Asia. Early European settlers brought Canada thistle seeds to the New World, possibly as accidental hitchhikers in grain shipments. A tough weed, the plant soon spread across the continent, taking root in fields and pushing aside crops. So why does it have this inaccurate name? Americans may have been looking for someone to blame for this plant—so they blamed Canada.

A version of this story originally ran in 2015.

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