One of the most valuable pieces of advice that I received before becoming a pig owner was that you vet your pigs twice a day and then feed them. That is to say, you don’t just chuck their food at them and wander off: you watch them as they eat, check them over and make sure that all is well. Pigs are hardy creatures and if you pick up on any slight problem fast and treat it immediately, they are likely to make a quick recovery.
On 28 February, my husband went out to feed Snout and Crackling and when he came back into the kitchen remarked that Snout had been slow to come out of his ark to eat. I had a head torch on and was out of the garden door almost before he’d finished his sentence. A pig that is slow to come to eat is unheard of. There is a reason that the expression “as greedy as a pig” exists. I went into their area and found Snout standing silently beside the wire fencing, not moving. He looked strangely uncomfortable but I couldn’t work out why to begin with. I sat down in the mud and talked to him and then as I watched, I saw him straining as if he was constipated. He then bucked and his stomach pulsated and his front and back legs came close together so that he looked like we all look when we have bad stomach pain: almost doubled over. His tail, which is normally straight when he is at peace, was wound tightly up and then would wag vigorously in distress. As I watched, he relaxed and then a wave of pain would catch him and he would strain once more. He was straining so hard that his rectum was prolapsing and mobile phone in my shaking hand, I rang my vet and left her an anxious message.
I have a wonderful vet. If you need a wonderful vet, look no further than the Baron’s Court Veterinary Centre which also has a branch in Notting Hill. If Emma Nicholas wasn’t such a tenacious woman, Snout would have died that night. Emma may run two practices and single-handedly care for two children but at 8pm at night, she rang me back almost instantly. I told her that I had taken Snout’s temperature and that it was normal but his behaviour was not and he was clearly in distress. I said that he looked like he might have cystitis but a very severe case of it. Whatever had happened to him had occurred during the day because he had eaten his breakfast at the same speed as his brother and had seemed fine that morning. Emma suggested that I take him to an emergency vet in Pimlico to ask for their opinion. Now, transporting a sick cat or dog is one thing. Transporting 65kg of distressed pig is quite another.
I am a motorbike rider and am quite sniffy about cars in general and particularly 4x4s in an urban setting which I have always considered preposterous. It was distressing to my pride, therefore, that my husband bought us a Landrover Defender about two years ago when his old car was blown up (I mean it. It was firebombed at a campsite in Henley-upon-Thames but that is a completely different story). However now that I am a pig owner, the Landrover is a brilliant car and when it’s not transporting wedding dresses or pig feed or children or stuff, you can pad it out with straw and slot in a 65kg pig. If we’d been the owners of a Smartcar, my pig would not have been saved. Never will I be rude about my husband’s choice of car again. The Landrover Defender is a perfect choice for an urban couple. Who keep pigs.
So at 8pm at night, I harnessed Snout and as gently as possible, Snowy and I encouraged him out of the garden, down the side passage and together heaved him into the car. I then set off for Pimlico. There are very strict laws governing the movement of pigs and you cannot just up and off with your pig in your car without a licence but I knew enough to know that if I didn’t get Snout examined that night, he was going to be in serious trouble. The traffic from Chiswick to Pimlico was terrible and sitting on the Cromwell Road with my beautiful ginger pig snorting and shouting and screaming was daunting. I drove slowly because I was so churned up emotionally and made it to Pimlico after about 40 minutes. Parking on a double yellow line outside a crowded pub, I ran across the road to the vets and begged them to come and take a look at Snout, explaining that I couldn’t bring him to them as he was a pig and difficult to move.
They were kind, the vets at Elizabeth Street and did as much as they could with a farmyard animal in distress. Given that their normal clients are dogs, cats and the occasional ferret, to be asked to consult a large Kune Kune pig was well beyond their remit. They established that his heart was fine and because Snout then peed all down my jacket sleeve as we were examining him, thought that the straining was perhaps just a temporary problem and might have righted itself. They told me to take him home, monitor him and if needs be, ring them back and they would refer him the the Royal Veterinary College (RVC)at Potters Bar.
So back we went from where we had come with my piggy shouting loudly and me talking to him constantly in a low voice and saying his name over and over again to try and reassure him. We arrived home at about 10pm and Snowy helped me get him out of the car. Once back inside his enclosure, the straining started once more and it looked more serious than ever. I rang Emma and she took matters into her own hands by ringing the RVC herself. She told me to sit tight and she would ring me back as soon as she had spoken to them. So I sat tight on the ground, knotted with anxiety and distress at my pig’s own anxiety and distress. I didn’t touch Snouty but just talked quietly to him to reassure him that I was there. The minutes ticked by and then five minutes was gone and then ten. I held out my mobile to check that it was receiving a signal. I peered at it to check that I hadn’t received silent text message. Nothing. And then she rang. To tell me that she herself was on hold to the RVC who were trying to find a vet who could see him. I should carry on sitting tight. 10.30pm. 10.45pm. 11pm. A text came through: ”Am on the phone. Am really trying here. Will ring when have news”. I knew that Emma was doing her best. Her commitment to animal welfare is second to none. I sat tight.
Emma rang me at 11.10 to say that I should load Snout onto the car and start driving North to Potters Bar. She still hadn’t got a firm commitment from the RVC that somebody would see him but she had spoken to two vets who were on their way to the college. It would take me nearly an hour to get there and I should get going because Snout’s condition was worsening and by the time we arrived, she said that somebody would be ready to see him. Almost in tears, I loaded him back into the car, Snowy programmed his Satnav and I headed North to the A406 to begin the journey to the RVC. Terrified.
I talked to Snout constantly as we drove. As much as for him as for me. I drove slowly so that I didn’t make any mistakes or crash the car. I peered at the road signs in the dark and the Satnav that sat brightly shining at me on the dashboard. North we went: North Circular past Ikea; Brent Cross; Hendon; Mill Hill. Up the A1 until we got to the junction where it meets the M25: South Mimms Services. A text came through from Emma: ”two vets waiting for you. Papers being faxed now. Good luck”. In the beam of the headlights, I saw the sign “Royal Veterinary College” and the tears of relief started to leak out of my eyes. Snout was throwing himself around in the back, groaning and shouting. I edged forward in the dark down an unlit road, driving down it for two miles or so. The Satnav directed me off to the right and then over a humpbacked bridge. We were nearly there, it said. All around me were elegant residential houses and I couldn’t imagine where the College might be. The roads were deserted and there were no lights anywhere. And then as we crested the hill, the headlights picked up a sign to the left announcing our arrival and as I swung carefully round the corner, I saw a huge, modern complex and a barrier and security gate that reassured me that I was in the right place.
Amazingly, given how distressed I was, I processed the instructions the security guard gave me and drove into the RVC complex, waiting for the barriers to be lifted as I approached them. In the darkness of the Equine carpark, I stopped the car and got out. There was nobody there. Nobody at all. There were no lights. There was no noise apart from Snouty shouting. I rang Emma and in a quivering voice told her that I was there and there was nobody. ”They’ll come”, she reassured me in her robust voice, “they’ll be there, just wait!”. And then out of the gloom, the silhouette of a man appeared. Was I the lady with the pig, he asked. And fuck, yes, I was the lady with the pig. My poor, beautiful, desperate pig. And from that point on, stuff started to happen.
I have done a bit of First Aid in my life and have discovered that I am quite calm and capable in the dealing with road accidents or human trauma. On one occasion, I held a man’s nearly severed hand onto his arm whilst speaking to the Emergency Services and successfully extricated an unconscious driver from a potentially dangerous car single-handedly. But give me a sick animal and as I have discovered, I go to bits. I am not calm or capable. I am highly emotional and distressed. I sat in the Equine Reception area and as a report sheet was filled in and questions were asked, tears coursed down my face. I met the two Equine vets who had come in especially for me, Bettina and Sophie. I cried and cried and cried as they talked to me. And they were brilliant: calm, caring and to the point. There were veterinary students all around, which given it was past midnight surprised me but I guess part of their training is to know that emergencies happen at all times of day and night and you get up, put your overalls on and go, even when it’s the middle of the night. Snout was unloaded and a vet with a love of pigs, gave him a big hug around his hairy fat neck. And then he was taken into a holding area and his ears were shaved. Blood was taken and a student dispatched to a lab. His flanks were shaved and he had a scan, exactly like I had when I was pregnant. Snout’s bladder was enormously stretched. He needed help and finally was in the right place to receive it.
I could hardly bear to leave Snout that first night but leave I did and returned home. I sent a text to my assistants at work to say that I would be absent the following morning and to manage everything and everybody in my absence. I didn’t sleep.
At 8am the next morning I was on my motorbike, heading North once more towards Potters Bar. Normally with an inbuilt Satnav of my own, I don’t need any form of direction but on that morning, tired and highly over-emotional, I got lost. I didn’t have a map and I didn’t have much petrol. In despair I rang work and asked for directions. My wonderful assistant, Christina gave me the directions I needed in a calm and reassuring way and soon I found the South Mimms services and was on the right track once more with petrol in my tank and a Twix in my pocket (I realised that in the chaos of everything that had happened that I hadn’t eaten anything since lunchtime the preceding day). I arrived at the RVC and in an enormously tense state, asked to see my pig. I was invited to take a seat and wait for somebody from the Farmyard section to come and see me. I stood. I paced. There was a lady there with a bridle on the floor, sitting peacefully and reading a magazine. I chewed on my Twix that tasted of cardboard. And then a pretty girl appeared and asked it I was Snout’s owner. And I burst into floods of tears. And like the night before, I cried and cried and cried. With kind speed, Ami guided me into a small private room and told me clearly where Snout was and how he was. He was no longer in discomfort and I could see him at once. Shaking with distress, I walked to the Obs Barn and there was my pig who on seeing me, shouted with delight and I fell upon him, crying into his fur.
Snout is very ill. If I hadn’t been able to get him to Potters Bar that night, his bladder would have exploded inside him, which would have been a terrible way to die. Over the last two weeks he has had blood tests, scans and an operation. He had stones in his kidneys, crystals in his bladder and a stone deep in his urethra, which cannot be removed. Within 48 hours of his being admitted, the vets operated to remove some of the stones and sent them to be diagnosed. The hope was that they would be Struvite stones and if that had been the case, we could have fed Snout something to help his body dissolve them. The reality is that my pig has manufactured stones made out of Calcium Carbonate which cannot be dissolved. His condition is rare in such a young pig (he is only nine months) and normally presents in a much older boar. Also, unfortunately because he was castrated young (at the age of eight weeks), his urethra is not fully developed but of course it is far kinder to castrate a pig at a young age so it’s a catch 22, really.
Anyway, over the past two weeks, I have been to see Snout every day. There have been days when he has been sedated and I have just sat in the straw with him, stroked his head and held his trotter. For a couple of days, when he was really quiet, I read a book for an hour or so and stroked him without stopping, coming away with one very clean hand and one very grubby one. Over the past ten days, he has been much more lively and I have taken him out for a walk around the RVC every day. He has acquired a legion of fans, from the Security Guards at the front gate to the administrative staff who sit high up in the main building and look down on us as we potter around, Snout rotovating the grass and me pushing it surreptitiously back into place and stamping it down to try and hide the damage. His vets, James and Ami have been a constant source of knowledge and support and have also been so good at talking to me even when my face is a wall of tears.
Over the past 24 hours, Snout’s catheter has been clamped to see if he is able to pee on his own. During the operation, part of his bladder adhered to the wall of his stomach and so he has lost the ability to squeeze it completely so that he will never be able to pee in an uninterrupted stream. That at the moment is the least of our concerns and we are just watching to see if he can pee out of his penis. Today, I crouched down beside him as he strained to urinate, watching anxiously as his stomach contracted with the effort of peeing. He has been given pain relief and does not seem too distressed but we are all watching him constantly. I have told James and Ami that I am reconciled to the fact that he may have to be put down but they have quietly reassured me that we must give him every chance, as long as he is not in pain, to try and move the stone inside his urethra. When I am not at the RVC, text messages fly backwards and forwards and I try to stay positive whilst knowing that it is very unlikely that my beautiful ginger pig will recover from his illness and be able to come home with me again.
Of course Snout is a twin and his brother Crackling, healthy as anything, is left alone at home, bereft of company. Snout and Crackling have not been apart since the day they were born and Crackling is despondent without his brother A good pig breeder will never sell you one pig on its own unless you already have pigs. They always sell them in twos because pigs are sociable animals and need a friend. And so, each day, after I have been to the RVC to spend time with Snout, I return home to Crackling to take him walking in the Spring sunshine and spend time with him. We potter slowly to the park and Crack eats weeds and meanders around. So many people ask after Snout and each time I tell them what has happened, I well up. In the evenings, Snowy and I sit outside with Crackling in the dark and talk to him and each other. He lies fatly beside us in the straw and seems content but I know that he cannot last much longer without a friend. I have contacted the breeders and they have a new litter from Snout and Crackling’s parents. I have asked them to reserve one of the boys for me but have postponed the day when I shall go and collect him because I just can’t give up on Snouty yet. He is in the best possible hands and is a strong and determined animal and I have to hope. Please hope for me and for him. Please hope.