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

8 Things to Know About Tiger King, Netflix's Bizarre New True Crime Docuseries

Joe Exotic's story has become must-watch television.
Joe Exotic's story has become must-watch television.
Netflix

Last week Netflix quietly premiered Tiger King, a seven-part documentary series that continues the streaming service’s streak of compelling true crime tales. With each increasingly outlandish episode, viewers are submerged in the world of exotic petkeeping and roadside zoos, with Oklahoman polygamist Joe Exotic trading barbs—and eventually threats—with Florida tiger rescuer Carole Baskin. The tale rapidly expands to include a suspected sex cult, alleged mariticide, Exotic’s music career, and a somewhat unreliable hitman.

If you’ve finished the series, take a look at some additional facts surrounding this eclectic cast of characters. Just be aware that many spoilers follow.

1. Carole Baskin says Tiger King misrepresented a certain meat grinder.

When viewers are introduced to big cat breeder and G.W. Zoo operator Joe Exotic in Tiger King, they get an immediate glimpse of his rivalry with big cat advocate Carole Baskin. In addition to threats of bodily harm against Baskin, Exotic goes on to assert that in 1997, Baskin murdered her millionaire husband, Don Lewis, so that she could take over his vast estate and then fed his remains to her rescued tigers. In a blog post, Baskin denied that claim and stated that the meat grinder was a rumor started by the Lewis family. “Our meat grinder was one of those little tabletop, hand crank things, like you’d have in your kitchen at home,” she wrote. “The idea that a human body and skeleton could be put through it is idiotic. But the Netflix directors did not care. They just showed a bigger grinder.”

2. "Doc" Antle has denied his zoo operates as a kind of sex cult.

Tiger King makes significant overtures that Myrtle Beach Safari zoo operator Mahamayavi Bhagavan "Doc" Antle has used his stature in the world of big cats to recruit young women he subsequently develops personal relationships with. Antle dismissed this characterization to Vanity Fair. “There are a lot of cute girls here, because the conservation movement does draw in cute girls,” he said. “But those cute girls have nothing to do with this old fat guy running the place.” Antle went on to suggest his son was the beneficiary of any romantic entanglements. “He is a living Tarzan. He has women throwing themselves at him.”

3. There’s no federal law against owing big cats.

Central to Tiger King is the controversial premise that there’s no federal law prohibiting private citizens from owning potentially dangerous wildlife like lions or tigers. The Fish and Wildlife Service does require permits to sell endangered species across state lines, but traffickers often avoid this rule by marking transactions as “donations.” At the state level, roughly two-thirds prohibit owning a big cat. Others simply require a license, while a handful of states—including Oklahoma and Nevada, which figure prominently in the series—have no regulations at all.

4. Jeff Lowe was once sued by Prince.

Midway through the series, Joe Exotic appears to find a hope of salvation in the form of Jeff Lowe, an exotic animal enthusiast who agrees to have the G.W. Zoo put in his name to thwart the collection efforts of Carole Baskin, who had successfully sued Exotic for trademark infringement and won a $1 million judgment. (Exotic had used his web presence in an attempt to make people believe Baskin’s Big Cat Rescue was associated with his own efforts to antagonize Baskin and confuse her supporters.) Lowe himself was no stranger to controversy. In 2007, musician Prince sued Lowe because Lowe was allegedly selling unauthorized Prince merchandise. And in 2008, Lowe pled guilty to mail-order fraud charges for posing as an employee of a domestic abuse charity and reselling $1 million in merchandise.

5. Joe Exotic's business partner Rick Kirkham had a nervous breakdown.

Acting as a narrator of sorts, television producer Rick Kirkham appears in Tiger King to relate his experience dealing with Exotic, with whom he had a deal for a reality television series. According to Vanity Fair, Kirkham was initially reluctant to appear in the documentary but relented when the filmmakers agreed to come to Oslo, Norway, where he currently lives and works as a journalist. Kirkham said he had a nervous breakdown after his experience with Exotic, whom he described as “evil” and “like something out of The Omen.”

6. There’s more to the story of Joe Exotic’s (third) husband’s death than the series covered.

There is no shortage of astounding footage in Tiger King, but none provokes more of a shocked reaction among viewers than the moment when Joe Exotic’s third husband, 23-year-old Travis Maldonado, walks into the G.W. Zoo’s office, puts a gun to his head, and pulls the trigger. (The surveillance camera captures the reaction of an employee, as Maldonado is not within view.) It is unclear whether Maldonado was using the firearm recklessly, as he was known to do, or whether it was suicide. According to a 2017 article in the Oklahoman, Maldonado believed the gun had a bullet in the chamber but that it would not fire without a magazine, which he had ejected. It appears his death, while self-inflicted, was accidental.

7. Joe Exotic’s zoo is still open—but it might not be for much longer.

Following Exotic’s departure from the G.W. Zoo after butting heads with Jeff Lowe, the zoo he founded is still in operation. Lowe initially renamed it the Greater Wynnewood Animal Park before calling it the Oklahoma Zoo, with plans to relocate it to Thackerville, Oklahoma in the summer. It’s currently open for business. Speaking with Entertainment Weekly, filmmakers Eric Goode and Rebecca Chailkin expressed doubt about the zoo’s future. “All I can tell you is [Lowe] is basically operating on fumes,” Goode said. “No one is going now and there’s no source of income, and that’s been going on for a long time. It’s not something that has just happened because of what’s happening in the world today.”

8. Joe Exotic is still posting on Facebook and is asking for a presidential pardon.

In January 2020, Joe Exotic was sentenced to 22 years for two murder-for-hire plots against Carole Baskin as well as 17 wildlife charges. Exotic, who is currently being held in Grady County Jail in Oklahoma, regularly posts updates on Facebook expressing hope that Tiger King will activate supporters and help petition for a presidential pardon. “Thank you to the millions of people around the world who have watched Tiger King and see now the wrong that has been done to me,” he wrote on Monday, March 23. “It is you the people of the world who can change what has been done. Please keep this alive until someone reaches our President for a Pardon because its [sic] the right thing to do.”

Watch Fennec Foxes Exploring an Empty Chattanooga Zoo

wrangel, iStock via Getty Images
wrangel, iStock via Getty Images

Zoo animals around the country are taking advantage of their newly vacant environments. On Monday, March 23, the Chattanooga Zoo in Tennessee shared a video of its fennec foxes out of their enclosure and wandering halls that would normally be populated by people.

The Chattanooga Zoo closed to the public on Tuesday, March 17, in an effort to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus. Zookeepers are still coming into work, so not much has changed for the animal residents—besides the occasional opportunity to explore new parts of their home.

"While the visitors are away, the foxes will play!" the zoo wrote in a Facebook post. "We miss our interpretive centers being full of visitors this time of year, but while they had the chance, our keepers let our foxes explore the visitor viewing area of the Deserts of the World building for some fun environmental enrichment."

The zoo may have been inspired by the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago. Last week, the aquarium allowed its rockhopper penguins to take a field trip around the facilities, showing them around the Amazon exhibit and information center. As the video above shows, the fennec foxes were able to take in their new environment much faster on four legs.

In addition to sharing clips on its Facebook page, the Chattanooga Zoo is also sharing live-streams of its animals on its website. Here are even more animal webcams to check out while social distancing.

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