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

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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.

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.”

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

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.”

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

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?’”

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

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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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]

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