DEER TRAIL — Every now and then, Cheerios rain down on a sea of brightly colored yoga mats as 20 strangers glide through a series of yoga poses.
Beneath them, quivering pink snouts chase after the Cheerios, and by the time everyone transitions into the warrior pose — arms outstretched, feet planted wide apart — those snouts are weaving their way through the tunnels of legs on the prowl for more cereal.
Many of those trying yoga with pigs for the first time on a recent Saturday contorted themselves into a state of calm after 45 minutes of flowing through the yoga session, stopping occasionally to pet one of the three pigs passing by.
“It’s lighthearted,” said Denver resident Kyley Taylor, who tried out yoga with pigs at Colorado Cider Company earlier this month. “I thought it was really fun. And just to stop and pet a pig, I was laughing in the middle of yoga, which usually doesn’t happen.”
The pigs, however, lacked the same sense of ease. Even with bellies full of oats and plenty of coos, oohs and aahs from the people above them, they still fought with each other, bellowing deep grunts and piercing squeals any time they felt uneasy.
But these hogs don’t need yoga for levity or serenity. Their place of zen is more than 50 miles east of Denver on a secluded stretch of 38 acres. It’s a sanctuary surrounded by boundless fields of grasses and wildflowers basking in the sun, where about 150 hogs from 12 breeds live in various herds. They, too, were once strangers, brought together by troubled pasts to a new home far removed from any slaughterhouse or neglect.
Many are still healing. Others are thriving.
Chief Wiggum, a stout potbellied pig named for the police officer in “The Simpsons” TV series, stepped foot onto Hog Haven Farm in spring 2017 when he was morbidly obese. Now 9 years old, his first few years of life mostly revolved around doughnuts, a diet his previous owner fed him while fattening him up for slaughter. Chief Wiggum has since shed more than 100 pounds.
One of his nearest neighbors, Zara, has adapted to the pen they share, a much more spacious enclosure than her last home in Sterling, where she belonged to an older couple who hoarded a variety of animals — more than 200 on 2 acres. The shy potbellied pig, with bristly hairs covering her pink-and-gray body, arrived at the sanctuary with her pregnant sister and four male pigs in 2017 and had an open wound from snout to tail. Now 7, Zara has healed, but the scar on her back brands her with a painful reminder of her past.
And then there’s Creedence, a pink-legged black pig named after the rock band Creedence Clearwater Revival, who is best friends with another pig, Lodi, named for one of the band’s songs. Creedence was found by a dumpster behind a King Soopers store in Castle Rock when he was 10 to 12 weeks old.
“Once they realize that they’re safe and they’re in a home where they’re going to get food every day and they have proper bedding and proper shelter, those pigs tend to rebound much more quickly,” said Erin Brinkley-Burgardt, co-founder and executive director of Hog Haven Farm. “Although, it can take some time to really gain their trust. It takes time for them to feel comfortable.”
Other pigs that come from loving homes, where owners are no longer able to care for them and surrender them to Hog Haven, struggle to adjust to life on the rescue farm after forming unbreakable bonds with those who give them up, Brinkley-Burgardt said. Like humans, they grieve. They suffer depression. They cry real tears.
Brinkley-Burgardt launched Hog Haven with her husband, Andrew Burgardt, in 2014 after falling head over hooves for their first adopted pig, Pipsqueak, whom they belovedly called Pippy and lost to a cancerous tumor in April. As the couple dove deeper into social media groups for pet pig owners and searched for a second pig as a companion for Pippy, they realized the overwhelming number of hogs needing to be rescued across Colorado and the country.
Less than 5% of pet pigs stay in one home their entire life, Brinkley-Burgardt said, citing information from Mini Pig Info. A mix of factors make them more transient animals, including widespread misconceptions about how big a pig will become — “teacup pigs” are not actual breeds and all pigs reach at least 70 pounds with most weighing 100 pounds or more once they hit adulthood, Brinkley-Burgardt said. Owners also sometimes run into complications with zoning and homeowner associations banning pigs as pets.
“It’s really sad because pigs have become kind of a disposable pet, like anything else,” Brinkley-Burgardt said.
People abandon pigs at alarming rates, she said, but they have fewer options of where to go than dogs and cats.
Hog Haven Farm, which has had to turn away more than 200 pigs in need of a new home this year, opens up its pens to pigs that have no other options, including hogs that are found stray; that land in shelters and are added to euthanasia lists; and that have endured cruelty, been neglected or lived with an animal hoarder, Brinkley-Burgardt said. There are exceptions, but the nonprofit does not accommodate most pet owners who want to surrender their pets, directing them instead to other nonprofits that focus on placing pigs into new homes.
“So we can really help the ones that need it the most,” Brinkley-Burgardt said.
Giving a pig a rare chance at a full life
The roots of Hog Haven Farm trace back to Denver, where Brinkley-Burgardt and her husband lived about 10 minutes outside downtown. They started by taking in foster pigs with the goal of finding safe homes for them but quickly discovered the heartbreakingly long list of hogs needing a second chance, with the rate of people wanting to surrender pigs far surpassing the rate of people trying to adopt.
A year later, in 2015, the couple moved to a modest plot of land in Byers, about 13 miles northwest of Deer Trail.
“Being the city kids we were, we thought 2.5 acres was going to be plenty for our pig rescue,” Brinkley-Burgardt said. “It was not.”
After 10 months, they relocated with 28 pigs to the sprawling farm in Deer Trail they currently own and by 2019 had rescued 100 hogs, a number they never imagined they would care for, let alone the 150 — most of which are from Colorado — that now reside at the sanctuary.
Brinkley-Burgardt returns to Denver twice a month May through September with a trio of hogs to join a yoga class at a local brewery. As attendees fold themselves into all kinds of yoga positions, the hogs follow trails of Cheerios, unfazed by the turning and twisting of torsos.
The regular yoga sessions raise money for the nonprofit and give many animal lovers their first up-close encounter with a pig.
Taylor, the Denver resident who attempted yoga with pigs, shared her mat with one of the hogs as it crept into her space, turning an otherwise tranquil practice into one punctuated by laughter.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been this personable with a pig,” she said.
This year, the yoga mats are all rolled up, with the pigs shifting to Oktoberfest, or “Hogtoberfest,” on Saturday, when the public can get to know a group of pigs while sipping beer at Resolute Brewing Company in Centennial. The free event will support Hog Haven Farm with merchandise for sale, a raffle and a portion of beer sales benefitting the animals.
For more information on “Hogtoberfest,” click here.
As Brinkley-Burgardt delivers dinner to each of the 28 pens at her Deer Trail home, tossing scoops of pre-portioned pellets from a red bucket into various troughs and food bowls in most of the pens, some of the hogs stampede toward their meal, kicking up dust and belting a symphony of squeals. The appetites of a few pigs often compel them to jump up on the fence nearest to them and scream. Meanwhile, many of the pigs scurry from bowl to bowl, making sure they get their fair share and don’t miss out on any of the best food.
Mealtime doubles as a moment for Brinkley-Burgardt, who is mostly a one-woman caretaker, to check in on each hog, watching for anything unusual as she calls them out by name, often with a little improvised tune.
That sort of tenderness is what gives the pigs at Hog Haven Farm a promising shot at living a full life. While pigs on the path to slaughter often don’t live past 6 months old, potbellied pigs live 15 to 20 years on average and farm pigs’ lives can span 10 to 12 years, according to Brinkley-Burgardt.
It’s easy to form a bond with soulful, smart swine
Many of the pigs at Hog Haven are waiting to be adopted. Others are vulnerable and have found their forever home in the sanctuary, struggling with mobility because of medical problems like arthritis and facing behavioral challenges because of mental health issues like schizophrenia.
One of them is Peanut, a 3-year-old potbellied pig who is also a dwarf pig — uncommon among swine. When she just a year old, Peanut started self-harming, attacking her own legs until they bled, an alarming behavior Brinkley-Burgardt had never seen. The pig also had violent mood swings, Brinkley-Burgardt said.
Peanut would be affectionate and then “with no warning, turn into a very aggressive, scary kind of pig,” she said.
One peer-reviewed study indicating that pigs can have schizophrenia helped Brinkley-Burgardt, her husband and one of their vets loosely diagnose Peanut, who now takes medication and has returned to her sweet nature.
Another hog, Greta, was bound for a wheelchair after being born with a deformed back leg resembling a flipper. She “scooted herself around” using her front knees instead of her back legs, Brinkley-Burgardt said.
The farm ordered a wheelchair for the potbellied pig, now almost 8 years old, with plans for a veterinarian to amputate her leg. At the last minute, the doctor decided to hold off on surgery and instead try gabapentin, a neurotransmitter blocker often used for pain management in humans.
It turned out to be “a miracle drug” for the hog, Brinkley-Burgardt said.
“Now she can really hustle,” she said. “It’s crazy to watch her now compared to how she was before.”
Louisa has also made a full recovery after a harrowing start to life. The blue butt hog leapt off a speeding truck full of pigs on their way to be slaughtered along Colorado E-470 and Peña Boulevard near Denver International Airport. Louisa, an estimated 6 months old at the time, was left with severe road rash on the back of her legs and butt and a degloved hoof — which Brinkley-Burgardt compared to a fingernail being ripped off, only more painful.
Denver Animal Control picked up Louisa and brought her to Denver Animal Shelter, where Brinkley-Burgardt met her in May 2021 before transporting the calm, affectionate pig to Hog Haven in the back of her car.
She is one of the “sweetest and most forgiving pigs,” Brinkley-Burgardt said, noting that she is now clear of health problems after first living in a quarantine pen where the farm worked to keep her hoof as clean as possible, pay close attention to her other abrasions and monitor her for infections.
Brinkley-Burgardt will do anything it takes to nurture each hog as they gain stability. Over the years, she has hand-raised nine piglets, teaching them to drink from a shallow pan at all hours in her bedroom. This summer, she shepherded Junior, a 6-year-old Hampshire mix with lymphoma, through a major surgery to remove a tumor in his intestines. When tears trickle down a pig’s cheek as they move through their grief, she sits by them as close as they’ll allow, talking to them and reassuring them that they’re safe in “a happy home.”
They’re almost like her children — all 150 hogs.
“It’s kind of hard to explain,” Brinkley-Burgardt said. “I think that I just developed an affinity for pigs. They’re such empathetic and soulful and smart creatures that they’re very easy to form a bond with. I love all animals, but there’s just something about pigs that resonates strongly with me.”