Kristy Wurtele is big on pigs.
"I think I'd rather have a pig in the house than a dog or cat anyday," she says. "They don't have doggie breath, they don't chew up your furniture, and they're warm and snuggly to sleep with."
But Wurtele, 62, prefers her swine on the small side. She's been breeding "micro-pigs," also known as "teacup pigs," on her Arcadia farm since 2009, after buying her first pair in 2005. At just a foot tall, they're cuter and more manageable than the porkier pigs you'll find on most farms — and smaller even than the 2-foot tall, 200-pound pot-bellied breed that started the whole pigs-as-pets craze 25 years ago.
You remember this one, right? Actor George Clooney bought "Max" for his then-girlfriend Kelly Preston back in 1988. When she left, the pot-bellied pig, who by then weighed in at 300 pounds, stayed in the house, sharing the same bed with Clooney. (We don't know if he hogged the covers.)
After that, other celebs went hog-wild for the trend, but opted for smaller squeakers. Teacup pigs famously found homes across the pond with Rupert Grint of the Harry Potter movies and Victoria and David Beckham.
But most people don't have a mansion — brick or otherwise — for a pig to play around in. And many owners are discovering that "micro" is still pretty substantial when it comes to a pig. At an adult weight of 50 to 100 pounds, some micro-pigs grow to about the size of a compact Labrador retriever. They can be demanding, Wurtele says.
Though friends and neighbors are more likely to accept your decision to adopt an adorable (not to mention hypoallergenic and, reportedly, house-trainable) pig these days, prospective owners still should be aware of the differences between piglets and puppies.
Pigs can be social and loveable creatures; they also can be nervous and shy around strangers — or even aggressive, says Sharman Hoppes, a veterinarian and zoological clinician at Texas A&M University.
And until the pig identifies your family as its herd, she says, don't expect it to let you pick it up without some high-octave squeals.
Hoppes also warns that the newest breed of micro-pig can grow much bigger than advertised.
"It might be a teacup pig when it's born," she says. "But it's not a teacup pig when it's grown."
Hoppes and others worry that the babies are bred from pigs that aren't fully grown, so their appearance is deceptively small at piglet size.
Breeder Wurtele knows this firsthand. When she bought her pig Charlie in 2004, he was sold as a "miniature pot-bellied pig." He's now about 25 inches tall and weighs 250 pounds.
"This is really what you don't want in your house," Wurtele says.
Wurtele was able to house her sizable swine on her 16-acre farm in Arcadia. He's since become the Paradise Ranch mascot. But she decided to do some research and find out more about miniature pigs, and to see whether there really was such a thing.
"And there are," Wurtele says.
She and her husband, Jock Zaumeyer, had been breeding miniature horses since 1996, along with pygmy goats and American bobtail cats — so teacup pigs really weren't too far from their comfort zone. She has seven females and one male breeding. And the farm is thriving for Wurtele, who makes it her business to make pigs fly.
To other states, that is.
She regularly sends the $500 to $800
piglets to California, Washington and Wyoming by plane. A majority of her owners seem to come from the West Coast, Wurtele says.
"I try to qualify my buyers because I love these little babies, and I don't want them to end up in a sanctuary or dumped out on the road," Wurtele says. "They can be a challenge.
"You probably don't want to feed them out of the refrigerator, because tomorrow they'll learn how to open the door and help themselves," Wurtele says. "That's how smart they are."
When picking a pig
If possible, meet the breeder in person to see the conditions and the size of the parents.
Check your local zoning laws. Many cities don't allow barnyard animals in urban areas, such as Tampa. In the past, the city made an exception for pot-bellied pigs as pets, but you should still check it out.
Find a veterinarian near you who treats large animals such as pigs.