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.”

5420735987001

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

New Study Reveals 'Hyper-Alarming' Decline of Rainforest Insect Populations

iStock/jmmf
iStock/jmmf

Climate change is decimating yet another vital part of the world's ecosystem, according to a startling new paper. Rainforest insects are dying off at alarming rates, according to a new study spotted by the The Washington Post. In turn, the animals that feed off those insects are decreasing, too.

In the study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a pair of scientists from the Rensselaer Polytechnic University in New York and the National Autonomous University of Mexico studied populations of rainforest arthropods (an invertebrate classification that includes insects and spiders) in the El Yunque National Forest in Puerto Rico. They compared the number of insects lead author Bradford Lister found on trips in 1976 and 1977 with the number he and co-author Andres Garcia found on trips they took between 2011 and 2013.

Lister and Garcia used nets and sticky traps to collect insects on the ground and several feet above the ground in the forest canopy. They dried these captured bugs and measured the mass of their haul against the mass of insects found in the 1970s, finding that the modern net sweeps captured only an eighth to a fourth of the insects captured in the '70s. The mass of insects captured by sticky traps on the ground declined by 30 to 60 times what they were a few decades ago. They also tracked populations of lizards, frogs, and birds that live off those rainforest insects, finding that those populations had declined significantly, too, at levels not seen in other rainforest animals that don't rely on insects for food.

Tropical insects are particularly vulnerable to climatic changes, since they can't regulate their body temperature. During the time of the study, average maximum temperatures in El Yunque rose by almost 4°F (2°C). The warming climate is "the major driver" of this decline in arthropod populations, the study authors write, triggering a collapse of the forest food chain.

The paper has other scientists worried. "This is one of the most disturbing articles I have ever read," University of Connecticut entomologist David Wagner, who wasn't involved in the research, told The Washington Post, calling the results "hyper-alarming." Other studies of insect populations have found similarly dire results, including significant declines in butterflies, moths, bees, and other species. One recent study found that Germany's flying insect populations had decreased by as much as 75 percent in the last three decades. Scientists don't always attribute those population losses directly to warmer temperatures (habitat loss, pesticide use, droughts, and other factors might play a role), but it’s clear that insect populations are facing grave threats from the modern world.

Not all insect species will be equally affected by climate change, though. While we may see a sharp drop in the populations of tropical insects, scientists project that the number of insects in other regions will rise—leading to a sharp increase in crop-eating pests in some parts of the world and broadening mosquitos' geographical range.

[h/t The Washington Post]

13 Chill Facts About Sloths

iStock.com/janossygergely
iStock.com/janossygergely

Sloths seem to be everyone's "spirit animal." They get to eat, sleep, and hang out in trees all day, going about their business without a care in the world. Or at least that's how it looks. As it turns out, there are plenty of good reasons why sloths are so sluggish—and laziness isn't one of them. Here are 13 things you should know about the world's slowest animal.

1. TWO-TOED AND THREE-TOED SLOTHS AREN'T ALL THAT SIMILAR.

A baby two-toed sloth
iStock.com/wekeli

The cute little babe pictured above is a two-toed sloth, of which there are two species belonging to the Megalonychidae family. The four species of three-toed sloths, on the other hand, are part of the Bradypodidae family. The two groups are only distant relatives and have a few notable differences between them. While three-toed sloths are active in the daytime, two-toed sloths are nocturnal creatures. Three-toed sloths are also smaller and slower than their two-toed counterparts.

2. BOTH HAVE THREE TOES, THOUGH.

A two-toed sloth
Tim Evanson, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

The names used to distinguish the sloths are somewhat of a misnomer. Both have three toes on each hind limb. The real difference applies to the fingers on their forelimbs; one family has two claws, while the other has three. To avoid confusion, some groups—like The Sloth Conservation Foundation—have starting calling them two-fingered and three-fingered sloths.

3. THEY'RE RELATED TO THE EXTINCT GIANT GROUND SLOTH.

Illustration of a giant sloth
iStock.com/estt

Two-toed and three-toed sloths both evolved from giant ground sloths, the largest of which weighed several tons and stood about 12 feet tall. The animals went extinct about 10,000 years ago, likely due to hunting by early humans.

4. THEY WOULD FAIL AN EYE EXAM.

Close-up of a sloth
iStock.com/BrianLasenby

Sloths aren't exactly known for their sharp senses, and this is especially true for their eyesight. A mama three-toed sloth can't spot her own baby from 5 feet away, and combative male sloths have been observed trying to hit each other from a similar distance. Scientists say a genetic mutation is to blame. Three-toed sloths are born without cone cells in their eyes, which are needed to detect colors. As a result, they see things in black and white, and in poorer resolution, too. They also have a hard time handling bright lights—not the best trait for a diurnal (daytime) creature to have.

5. THEY'RE SURPRISINGLY GOOD SWIMMERS.

Sloths are painfully sluggish on land. Their hind legs are weak, so they have to use their arms and upper body strength to pull themselves forward. Plop them in some water, though, and they can move three times as fast. Their long front arms make them skillful swimmers, and they can hold their breath underwater for up to 40 minutes. If a body of water is nearby, they may jump in and use it as a shortcut to navigate the forest more quickly. In the above clip narrated by David Attenborough, a male sloth swims as fast as he can—which is pretty fast, all things considered—to track down a female sloth's mating call.

6. THEIR "LAZINESS" IS A SURVIVAL TACTIC.

A sloth in a chair
iStock.com/GeorgePeters

It's no secret that sloths are slow. Their reaction time is about a quarter as fast as a human's, and they move at a pace of 6 to 8 feet per minute. Indeed, three-toed sloths are the slowest animals on Earth, beating out other famously slow animals like giant tortoises and snails. When the animals were first documented in 18th-century scientific texts, they were harshly described as "the lowest form of existence." But their slowness is why they haven't died out. Sloths largely subsist on leaves, and it can take up to a month for their four-part stomachs to digest a single meal. The leafy greens aren't very nutritious, so they have to conserve as much energy as possible to survive—and that means moving less. As a bonus, their slow movements help them go unnoticed by predators that rely on sight to hunt down prey, like jaguars, ocelots, and harpy eagles.

7. THEY DO JUST ABOUT EVERYTHING IN TREES …

A baby sloth hangs from a branch
iStock.com/Mark Kostich

Sloths are arboreal creatures, so they spend almost all of their time in trees. They eat, sleep, mate, and give birth while hanging upside-down—a feat made possible by their anatomy. Their internal organs are anchored to their abdomen, which shifts weight away from their diaphragm and lets them breathe more easily, and therefore expend less energy.

Three-inch claws also help them latch onto branches and stay suspended far above the forest floor. In fact, their innate ability to cling to branches is so strong that dead sloths have been found dangling from trees, lending new meaning to the phrase "death grip."

8. … EXCEPT POOP.

A sloth on the ground
iStock.com/Damocean

As a consequence of their slow metabolisms, sloths poop once a week—and sometimes just once a month. Two-toed sloths often let 'er rip from the trees, but three-toed sloths follow a bizarre routine that has baffled scientists. They typically make their way down to the forest floor to relieve their backed-up bowels, and once they get there, they do a little "poo dance" while digging a small hole to defecate inside. Without the camouflage afforded to them by the foliage of the forest canopy, sloths are much more likely to be picked off by predators. About half of all sloth fatalities occur when they're on the ground, most likely doing their business or finishing up. So why do they do it? It might have something to do with sex, and marking a tree for a potential mate to find. "Whatever is going on, it's got to be kind of life or death for survival," sloth biologist Rebecca Cliffe tells The Washington Post. "In my brain, that tells me that it's probably something to do with reproduction because that is the driving fact behind most animals' crazy behaviors."

9. AND THEIR POOPS ARE ENORMOUS.

A man holds a sloth
iStock.com/Ssviluppo

When they do poop, their turds tend to be massive. If you put the contents of a sloth's bowel movement on a scale, they might weigh up to one-third of the animal's body weight. This is 282 percent larger than what scientists would expect to see in an animal of the sloth's size. "You can watch their stomachs physically shrink as they poo," Cliffe tells The Washington Post. Oddly enough, though, sloths don't fart. So there's that.

10. ALGAE OFTEN GROWS ON THEIR FUR.

A sloth covered in algae
iStock.com/dene398

Sloths have a symbiotic relationship with algae. Studies have shown that algae is sometimes passed down from a mother sloth to her baby, and the transfer is mutually beneficial for both animal and plant. The sloth's long fur creates a cozy home for the algae—which readily absorbs the water they need to thrive—and the sloths get a coat of green-tinted fur that doubles as camouflage. Sloths also eat the algae, which provides a much-needed source of nutrients.

11. FEMALE SLOTHS SCREAM WHEN THEY WANT TO MATE.

Females get the courting process started by letting out a loud, high-pitched scream to let male sloths know she's ready to mate. "This call is a loud 'eeeeeh' lasting more or less one second," sloth researcher Adriano Chiarello tells Live Science. Researchers are unsure on the particulars of sloth courting or copulation, or even if males will fight for the right mate with the screeching female (or if any fights are territorial instead). Whatever the details, the ensuing gestation period is between five and six months, and then the female sloth will birth one baby sloth, which is—uninterestingly—just called a baby sloth.

12. THREE-TOED SLOTHS CAN ROTATE THEIR HEADS 270 DEGREES.

A sloth turns its head to look back
iStock.com/MikeLane45

This special talent puts three-toed sloths in the same category as many owls. In both species, this Exorcist-esque ability can be attributed to their bone structure. Sloths have extra vertebrae at the base of their necks that let them look in all directions with ease. Although sloths aren't great at defending themselves, they can at least see when danger is approaching.

13. FOR SUCH DEFENSELESS CREATURES, THEY LIVE FAIRLY LONG LIVES.

A sloth peeks out from behind a tree
iStock.com/Damocean

"Live slow, die whenever"—the unofficial slogan bestowed upon sloths by the internet—pretty much gets it right. On average, sloths live to be about 20 years old, but some species can live longer in captivity. The world's oldest sloth—a female of the Hoffman's two-toed variety named Miss C—died last year at the ripe old age of 43. She was a lifetime resident of Australia's Adelaide Zoo.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER