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Originally published Sunday, August 17, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Judy Woods gives pigs a place to call their own

Unlike almost every other pig farm in creation, Pigs Peace exists not to ready piggies to become bacon or pork roast for QFC shoppers, but to give them all the comforts of meadow grasses and custom-milled grain they were denied in their former lives.

It all started simply enough with just one pig, a Vietnamese potbelly, who arrived in 1992. The potbelly was a hand-me-down from a Seattle friend who didn't want her anymore.

Judy Woods named the pig Fern and took her to live on the 6 ½-acre spread she owned in Arlington.

Then, in 1994, she heard King County Animal Control might know where she could find more unwanted pigs. She called. As it turnd out, a male potbelly was running loose in Des Moines. Did Woods want the pig? He was a full-grown, 4-year-old boar with untrimmed tusks and would be euthanized if she didn't take him. She would.

Woods, a nurse by day, named this one Wilbur and trucked him back to her little farm.

That same year, Woods created Pigs Peace Sanctuary and organized it two years later as a nonprofit dedicated to rescuing swine, potbellied and hog alike. The pigs haven't stopped coming.

Fourteen years later, Woods' flock has multiplied to somewhere in the neighborhood of 190 pigs. About 160 of them are potbellies, the rest more familiar Yorkshire and Berkshire pigs, some of them as large as 600 pounds. They live with Woods now on 34 acres just east of Stanwood.

But unlike almost every other pig farm in creation, Pigs Peace exists not to ready piggies to become bacon or pork roast for QFC shoppers, but to give them all the comforts of meadow grasses and custom-milled grain they were denied in their former lives as once-trendy potbellied pets in someone's apartment or backyard or as hogs grown for human consumption.

Pigs Peace is hog heaven, in other words.

Each pig has a name. There's Willow, Bunny and Harry. And the pigs own the farm, the trees, the outbuildings and equipment right down to the broken 1959 Ford 600 tractor that sits in a yard, grass growing around its tires.

Woods, you see, is vegan and hasn't touched meat since she was 15 years old. So committed is she to the cause that she stuck $50,000 of her own money into buying the Stanwood spread in 2002 and, then, gave ownership to the nonprofit (www.pigspeace.org). "It's all in the name of the sanctuary," she says. "The pigs own it all." In effect, she works for the pigs almost every waking hour of her life, not the other way around. "24-7, I am at their beck and call," Woods says. "I'm their slave."

She knows she's a small voice raised against the way porkers are used as food and, yes, as pets in America.

To the inevitable question of why she plowed her life savings into a hog farm, she simply says, "Because I love pigs, and pigs are the most misunderstood animals."

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Woods grew up in Seattle's Northgate neighborhood, the daughter of a Seattle firefighter. She attended Ingraham High School and, like most people around here then, was part of a meat-eating household. One day when she was 15, she says she read a letter to the editor in The Seattle Times. In it, the writer questioned the hypocrisy of people who claimed to love animals while eating animals at the same time. Woods was struck by the logic of it and became a vegetarian on the spot, an unusual move for a teenager in 1970.

Then, in quick succession, Woods gave birth to her first child (at 16), was married (at 25), had two more kids and became a registered nurse, worked in psychiatric and chemical-dependency units in Snohomish County and divorced her husband. That was in 1992, three years after she became a vegan, meaning she eats and consumes no animal products of any kind.

Now 53, Woods stands 5 foot 3, has graying hair and a friendly manner. When you visit her on the farm, she's often accompanied by one of several dogs she's taken in over the years, castoffs like the potbellies, or one of 20 or so feral cats.

Then there are the pigs. They're everywhere. Black-and-white potbellies, black potbellies, immense white sows. They roam almost at will through the pastures and woods, contained by 3-foot-high panels of wire fencing. Some of the 30 hogs Woods has came from farm-abuse cases around the state, and they arrive at the sanctuary broken down and confused (pigs are intelligent, social creatures). In June, Woods drove over to Wenatchee and returned with a pig that had been mired in mud for months and could walk only on its knees. Another pig had been kept in a basement in West Seattle for years and couldn't recognize the light of day.

Woods rehabilitates pigs, depending on their injuries, through a series of small buildings where they lie in wood chips, eat and socialize with other pigs. The pigs who can walk are first set loose into a small pasture with grass 3 feet high, an attempt to return them to their own nature before turning them out in the regular pastures with other pigs.

"They've never seen grass before," Woods says.

The farm itself is about the cleanest-looking and sweetest-smelling pig farm you could imagine. Woods is very aggressive about manure control. Her land — or the pigs' land — used to be a dairy farm and sits on a rise east of Stanwood proper, tucked between a farm that raises Morgan horses and another, a former egg farm that now raises hogs for market. Woods isn't thrilled by the irony of her pig-rescue operation sitting next to a pork-producing farm.

"It's horrible," she says. "But there's really nothing I can do about it." Woods lives in the original farmhouse, a small, two-bedroom home with wide porches and a view all the way to Camano Island. Bucolic as that seems, a mile to the west a series of other farms have become subdivisions, crowded with look-alike homes. People commute to Seattle from this area, Woods says, and she knows the land she's on is more valuable than the $450,000 she paid in 2002. Most of the money came from donations to the nonprofit — $200,000 from a Ballard woman named Mitzi Liebsper, who died in 2001 and left Pigs Peace money in her will, and $200,000 from the Seattle Foundation.

Says Woods: "We get people who believe in what this is all about and in teaching people there's a different way to live, and that would mean not eating them." The pigs, that is.

Beyond rescuing potbellies and hogs from certain death, half of the sanctuary's mission is to educate the public about pigs and the vegan and vegetarian lifestyles. But that part of the mission took a beating in 2006, when a farm building used to host tours for schoolchildren and other interested groups burned to the ground. A volunteer had let a wood stove in the building overheat, Woods explains. Until then, she'd hosted as many as 50 kids a week during school months, some from as far away as Seattle and South King County. Now, she's slowly working to convert an old milking barn on the farm into a new education center.

Tools for education or not, the pigs seem OK with the arrangement. They wander the land, snouts to the ground, and make quiet snorting noises as they chew up grass or eat from a bowl of feed. Small boulders are set out for them to rub on, and Woods often walks about with a hose creating watering holes for them to enjoy. Half-pipe-shaped huts have been fashioned into sleeping quarters. As many as 12 potbellies nestle together inside the huts, which can handle only two or three regular-sized hogs.

The pigs get to live here for the rest of their lives. When they die, Woods buries them on the farm and plants small fruit trees over them "so no one ever disturbs their grave." Last winter, 12 potbellies died of pneumonia, and on a recent spring day Woods had just finished burying a potbelly that had died from old age. Pigs, well-cared for, live into their teens, a far cry from the six months or so that an average razorback lives before being slaughtered.

In the summer, Woods grows much of her own food in raised beds near the farmhouse, planting five kinds of lettuce plus beans, squash and asparagus. The rest of the year, she relies on grocery stores.

Her salary for running the sanctuary is $15,000 a year. Annual costs for the operation run to $135,000, much of it going to feed for the pigs (about $36,000) and vet bills ($20,000) and upkeep on the barns and land.

THE FIRST potbellies came to the United States in the 1980s, imported from Canada and promoted as house pets. In Southeast Asia, the pigs are eaten much like more familiar hogs are here. They are roughly the size of a medium dog, but denser in body, their by now familiar potbelly hanging beneath their swayback spines.

Potbellies became the trendy pet of the late-1980s and early-'90s and, in time, breeders began churning out potbellies to order for discerning urbanites and suburbanites enamored of their intelligence and charm. Reportedly, potbellies could be sold for as much as $20,000 at one point. Even actor George Clooney owned a potbelly named Max, who died in 2006.

"There's nothing in the world cuter than a little pig baby," says Jenny Blaney, who raises pigs in upstate New York. "They are so darn engaging and cute, and they kiss you. And people want them to stay tiny." But like kittens and puppies, piggies grow up. Those cute little potbellies can weigh in as heavy as 150 pounds. And they can become, well, piggish, taking over households, ripping through food, opening refrigerators, tearing up newspapers and intimidating owners who aren't careful to keep the upper hand.

Plenty of other potbellies have been dumped along America's roadsides or sent to animal shelters and end up euthanized or, if they're lucky, at rescue operations such as Woods'. Blaney, an expert on potbellies and other pig breeds, estimates that between 250,000 and 300,000 potbelly pigs are in the U.S. (the USDA does not have a formal estimate). She says, too, that there are a fair number of pig rescue operations around the country. Some are formal nonprofits like Pigs Peace, some are informal operations run by pig lovers who have maybe 10 rescued pigs in a backyard.

However big the potbelly craze was in Seattle at one point, it's not even a blip on Seattle Animal Control's radar now. Don Baxter, an enforcement supervisor with the agency, says he knows of fewer than six potbellies licensed in the city.

Needless to say, the world consumes a lot of pigs. In 2006, China consumed 88 pounds of pork per person while the U.S. ate 64 pounds per person, according to the USDA. Outside of Islam and Judaism, almost every major culture eats pigs. In this country, pork is everywhere from barbecued ribs on the Food Network to bacon in a kitchen pan. As with most meat production in the U.S., the days of free-range pork are mostly gone.The majority of the nation's hogs are raised in large sheds these days. Woods decries this as factory farming. "Intensive farming" is the polite term.

But no matter how they are raised, pigs have long had the reputation of being nasty, dirty creatures that will eat anything and attack humans. "You don't ever turn your back on a pig" is a common saying among farmers.

It's a reputation that may not be entirely fair.

"Pigs raised in confinement on concrete are not happy animals," says Cheryl Ouellette, who raises pigs, the free-range kind, for slaughter in Summit in Pierce County. She's one of the few hog farmers in Washington state, where hog production isn't even among the top 40 agricultural products, according to the Washington State Farm Bureau. "Most are raised that way." They are large animals, she notes, and you don't ever want to get on their bad side.

"I would always be cautious for safety reasons," agrees Ruth Newberry, an associate professor of animal sciences and comparative anatomy at Washington State University and an expert on swine. "At the same time, most of them are not nasty at all. They're pretty intelligent." Newberry says there's some evidence that pigs are intelligent enough to engage in deceit, a primary measure of animal intelligence.

Woods goes much further. "They are kind and gentle animals," she says. She has no problem sticking her head into one of her pig huts and rousing a 600-pound sow. When she walks about the land, pigs often walk up to her and roll over on their backs to have their bellies rubbed. "This," she explains, "is what pigs are like. They have a social structure and spend their day roaming about. They don't like to eat garbage anymore than you or I like it."

That's what she tells the younger students who visit her farm, a process she hopes to restart soon. Woods teaches the kids about potbelly pigs, the responsibilities of pet ownership and how she believes the little pigs should never have been brought into the country.

"People didn't realize what they were getting into," says Woods. "Now the shelters won't take them. Someone living in an apartment has no business getting a pig as a baby. What are they thinking?"

Older students and adults do get more of the vegan manifesto, although Woods is hardly the fire-breathing true believer you sometimes encounter in conversations about food and animal rights.

"I try to be softer about it," she says. "You can lecture people and they don't want to hear it. But if you show them in a kind way that this is the way I live my life and it's the most compassionate way to live if you say you love animals, then you can get them. I try to live by example."

Philip Dawdy is a Seattle freelance writer. Harley Soltes is a freelance photographer.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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