Interview with Mary Schanz at Ironwood Pig Sanctuary

Posted: July 25, 2014 in PALS NEWS
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Sorry to bother you twice in one day–on a Friday, no less; but I’m super-stoked to share with you the enclosed interview I’ve just finalized with Mary Schanz, President and Co-Founder of the Ironwood Pig Sanctuary in Marana, AZ, where PALS visit regularly to volunteer.  Thanks so much to Mary, Ben and the rest of the team at Ironwood for their commitment to providing safe harbor for what I personally consider to be one of the most undervalued and under-appreciated non-humans in existence.

Pig Newton, at bathtime

Pig Newton, at bath time.

Willow and Daphne, napping/cuddling.

Willow and Daphne, napping/cuddling.







SR:      How did you first become involved in animal activism? Were you prompted by a specific person or event in your life?

MS:      When we moved to Arizona back in 1988, I became involved in environmental issues. I wrote letters to congressmen, the President, the board of supervisors (for local issues), state representatives and senators, as well as governing bodies such as the Game and Fish Department. I worked on land issues here, went to tabling events, donated money to organizations, etc. I began to receive mailings picked up by animal rights groups and soon I was drawn into what was happening to animals everywhere.

I attended an event in Tucson where speakers from various organizations gave talks. I went specifically to hear a representative from SPEAK, a local animal rights group. SPEAK was involved in many aspects of animal abuse, and demonstrated at rodeos, circuses, and vivisection labs, among other hubs of animal oppression. When I tied together what I had recently learned and what was said at this event, I was really shocked. This moment was a wake-up call to me about the horrible realities of animal abuse and, by extension, environmental concerns.

Later, while I was doing some petitioning to obtain signatures for a ballot issue (to get ten million dollars a year from lottery money for parks and recreation), there was a group collecting signatures to ban leg hold traps on public lands in Arizona.  Steel-jaw leg hold traps are metal traps in which people put a small amount of food, and animals attempting to eat the food are caught and left to die or to be preyed upon.  They are horrible cruel devises. I became very involved, and was soon one of the main people working on this ban— which finally passed after several attempts. By that time, I was completely involved with and committed to the animal right movement.

I also read John Robbins’s Diet for a New America, and it fit all parts of my thinking—health, ethical, and environmental.

SR:      It’s really rewarding to see how committed you are not only to helping animals, but also to helping the planet at large. Thank you so much for all of your efforts. Now, I’m sure you get this all the time, but…Why pigs?

MS:      It was really just by chance. I had been working on so many animal issues—all of which I am sure you are familiar with—and I was having a very difficult time. I was angry and depressed. Back in 1998, I saw an article in the paper about a woman who had a pig sanctuary and was in great need of help. In fact, our animal rights group, Voices for Animals, had received a few calls about her and the lack of care of her animals. I needed a break, so my husband and I went out to see her place and offer some help. We got very involved with her and her pigs, and there was a huge need, since she had no money and little infrastructure.

We built her shelters from wood out of construction dumpsters, put up shade, installed a water system, picked up produce several times at week, etc. Over a nearly two-year period, I became very attached to the pigs and we could see things were not going well. We knew we had to do something on our own to help these pigs that I had now grown to love.

SR:      How did Ironwood come to be? Who was your team comprised of, at first? How did you initially acquire the funding and space necessary for such a massive undertaking?

MS:      In November of 2000, we bought the first forty acres that was to become Ironwood. Things were not going well where we were volunteering at that time. The lady who owned the place was a drug addict, and she had allowed a male with an undescended testicle to breed with most of her females. She had been told he was neutered, and since his testicle didn’t show she did not notice when he was breeding all her females and did not question that maybe he really was not neutered. A pig with an undescended testicle may still be fertile and must be neutered.

The summer of 2000 was a nightmare, and we ended up paying to neuter all the male babies that were born that summer to prevent even more births. We knew she was not far from failing unless we infused money into her place—which we did not want to do; so we bought the land and began the plan to open our own place and to take many of her pigs.

The initial funding came from our own personal funds. We owned some properties in California, which we sold to buy the land and the first buildings, as well as to build the first pens and fields. Without this ability, Ironwood would not have happened.

Bubbles and Mojo. Fun Fact: At Burning Man 2007, I used the playa name "Bubbles." I have a good friend in NYC who goes by "Mojo."  These must be our spirit pigs :-)

Bubbles and Mojo. Fun Fact: At Burning Man 2007, I used the playa name “Bubbles.” I have a good friend in NYC who goes by “Mojo.” These must be our spirit pigs 🙂

SR:      Please tell us a bit about your first animal rescue. From where were the animals being recued? What condition were they in?

MS:      Our first two pigs, Claire and Popeye, were adopted from the place we were volunteering. The lady who had them was a friend of the woman who owned the place where we were volunteering, and when she heard we were opening our own place, she called and asked us if we would take her two pigs. Claire was about four at that time, and Popeye about two or three. We still have both of them. They arrived at Ironwood on June 10th, 2001. They were both in good condition. She did not want to keep them since she lived in town and they would scream when they wanted to eat; she was getting a lot of grief from her neighbors. They had not been abused.

SR:      How long has Ironwood been around? Any idea how many animals have been rescued by the sanctuary since its inception?

MS:      Ironwood has been active for about thirteen years. I don’t know for sure, since I have never done a good accounting of it; but from the number of pigs we have adopted and lost it would be some where between 1000 to 1200 pigs that have passed through our gates. Many have come from failed rescues, including the one at which we had volunteered. We bought her place in foreclosure in 2003 and left all the pigs in place. We had brought about seventy-five or more of them to Ironwood already, and we picked up another 105 from her when we purchased her place.

SR:      Please share one or two stories with us about pig rescues that stand out in your mind, after so many years’ experience in this line of work. Any personal favorites?

MS:      It is hard to say. There are so many. A few years ago, we got a call from a woman in Peoria, Arizona. She said she had an injured pig and wanted to know how to help her. As my husband began to talk with the pig owner, we found out that she had about forty pigs—and the males and females were all together, breeding without any restrictions!

For a period of time, she would not answer any of our calls. My husband was more or less horrified when he found out how many pigs she had and how they were being kept upon that first phone call.  I suppose she felt we would try to take them or turn her in to animal control—which someone else eventually did, but not us. She finally called us a couple of months later, told us her address and invited us to visit. She was now being charged with sixty-two counts of animal cruelty, and decided we could take all of her pigs.

Dexter and Jeannie

Dexter and Jeannie, rootin’ around.

It was a huge undertaking. There were twenty females, most of whom were pregnant; eleven boars; and couple of babies, one of whom died while we were there and another of whom died on the way home. After lytalyzing (this is a hormonal drug that acts to abort a pregnant animal, similar to RU 486 in humans) most of the females and having three litters from sows too pregnant to lytalyze, we ended up with a total of forty-five pigs. We now have a field named after the pigs from that rescue. It was an awful example of how one careless person can cause tremendous suffering.

One other time, we got a call from a woman who had answered an ad on Craigslist to buy a head board for her bed. When she went to look at it, she was horrified to see this poor pig in a carrier with no blanket (it was winter), surrounded by urine and feces. After she called us, we contacted the people to tell them we would take their pig. At first, they said no; but later, they called to say we could take her.

Her condition was shocking. When I saw her, without thinking, I muttered “Oh, my God.” She was so thin, she could not even get up; and she was cold from lying in the wet carrier. We took her home and named her Lola. We fed her several times a day (small meals), kept her warm and, in time, placed her with companion pigs near her age. She was only with us for a little over a year; but she was loved and well cared for during all that time, and at least her last time here was kind and peaceful. We had to euthanize her when she could no longer stand and her breathing had become very labored.

SR:      Those are both truly horrific stories; but I’m glad to hear they’ve had happy endings, all thanks to you, your husband and your team.

How does Ironwood currently go about funding? Are you mostly donation-based? Do you have any investors?

MS:      We are funded by donations. Our newsletter is our major source of funding, which goes hand-in-hand with our sponsor program (we feature the program in each edition of our newsletter). That is where the vast majority of our funding comes from; we also receive a couple of small grants. We have no investors; but we have gotten a few bequests, which have been helpful.

SR:      How does Ironwood currently go about staffing? Are you largely volunteer-based? Are there any qualities you feel are vitally important in a sanctuary volunteer or staff member?

MS:      Staffing is one of our most difficult problems. We are not run by volunteers. We have a few volunteers that come in once a week; but we could not run this place for even one day without our staff. We do have some volunteers who write Thank You notes and complete other office work for us, which is greatly appreciated. We run ads on Craigslist and in the paper. We have posted ads on our website and in Best Friends magazine; but most of those ads have not been successful.

There are qualities we would very much like our staff to have; but for the most part it is not possible. Most (though not all) of the staff are local people who need a job— not animal people. It is a hard job. We are remote, it is very hot here for many months of the year, the pay is not good, and the roads are very hard on one’s car; so staffing is not easy by any measure.

SR:      I’m so sorry to hear that. I hope PALS can be of value to you, both in terms of providing occasional volunteers and with respect to promoting your sanctuary so as to attract more applicants.

How do you find animals to rescue? Where do they come from?

MS:      People call us and e-mail us from all over Arizona— sometimes from California and New Mexico. We even got a message from Puerto Rico recently. When people want to give up their pig/pigs, they go online and look for a pig rescue— and we are the one that comes up in Arizona. They come from all over Arizona, but mostly from the Phoenix area. The most common reasons are moving, divorce, the person becoming pregnant, the pig becoming aggressive or destructive, strays, animal control or shelters. We have also taken in large numbers of pigs from other failed rescues here in Arizona, like the ones I mentioned earlier.

So many are now being released because people bought these poor pigs after being told lies that they were “tea cup” pigs and would only reach thirty to forty pounds. Many of these people know nothing about pigs or their needs, and very soon after buying them they try to dump them. Very sad indeed.

Ganesha and Govinda--speaking of spirit pigs...

Ganesha and Govinda–speaking of spirit pigs…

SR:      It is. It’s discouraging to think not only that people are being lied to about the pigs, but also that anyone who doesn’t know an animal’s needs to begin with would deign to purchase or adopt one. What is the alternative, for people who want to dump these poor animals, if they don’t call a sanctuary like yours? Where do some of these unwanted pigs end up?

MS:      Most unwanted potbelly pigs end up at auction, where they are sold for about fifty cents a pound to be slaughtered and rendered. Most animal control facilities do not take them; and when they do, some send them to the auction anyway when they are not adopted. Arizona shelters will often call us because pigs they have are not being adopted, so the only out is euthanasia.

SR:      What are some ways in which people who either don’t have time or live too far away to volunteer regularly at Ironwood can contribute to your mission?

MS:      People who live too far from the sanctuary to volunteer can contribute in many ways. First and foremost is by making a donation. Our medical bills and medicines are very expensive.  Water, since much of it must be hauled from far away in the summer months, amounts to about $70.00 a day—including the cost of the water, fuel and labor.  Grain and hay to feed 580 pigs, utility bills, insurance bills, supplies and so many more costs must be covered on a daily basis.  Employment is also a big part of our budget.  Ben and I take no salary and never have; but we alone could not run this place and care for this many animals for one day without our employees. They can also send products mentioned on our wish lists, which we publish regularly in our newsletter, accessible via our website:

People help in many other ways, however. They have a garage sale and donate the proceeds, for instance; they host a vegan bake sale on Earth Day; organize the annual Peaks for Pigs event and have a raffle and dinner at the end; create artwork and sell it on E-bay, giving us the profits; donate piggy items to be sold at our open house; write Thank You notes; pick up produce and come once a week to deliver it to be fed to the pigs; and sew small blankets together to make the larger size we need for surgery. So you see, the possibilities are many to help raise money for our pigs, raise awareness of our sanctuary and engage the community in pig-related activism.

SR:      Is there anything else you’d like to share with readers about your experience as a full-time rescuer of pigs?

MS:      Yes. I would like to add that these animals have become fad pets— exotic animals that really don’t belong in a home.  They are affectionate, smart, wonderful animals; but they are not easy to manage.  They bulldoze backyards, destroy household items, and often become aggressive beginning at about age 1 to 3 years old. They are driven to become the head of the herd, which is natural for them amongst their own but is not well-received in the human household.  Of the hundreds of pigs we have picked up over the years, very few have come from a good home for a pig.  Not that many of the people did not care for their pig; they just didn’t understand what a pig needs.  One of the most important needs for any pig, for instance, is a companion pig—and most people only want one pig.

Most locations are not zoned to allow them, since they are considered livestock in most places; and there are very few vets who will treat them.  Therefore, it is my opinion that these animals should not be bred for any reason.  Many people will wildly disagree with this statement, because there are many who really do love their companion pig. However, having been in this business for fifteen years, thirteen of which were spent running my own place, there are many more who don’t love them.  Many people get a piglet simply because it is cute, knowing little or nothing about raising a pig and what his or her needs are; soon enough, we get a call to take their pig.  Or their pig ends up in their backyard, or a tiny pen in the backyard, where this poor, intelligent, curious animal lives a life of boredom and loneliness.

So I would conclude by saying that if you do choose to give one of these animals a home—because the need is great—do your homework and be sure you understand what they need and who they are before taking in a pig as a companion.

SR:      That’s very valuable information, and a sad truth that exists for many animals, I think. People sometimes adopt animals as if picking out a new pair of shoes—what’s cute, what’s in season…But animals aren’t objects or toys. And just look at what happens to humans who don’t get enough regular contact with other humans! They go crazy!

One last question: What is your spirit animal?

MS:      I think I would have to say the BAT. We did many years of volunteer work related to bats before we had the sanctuary, and I have a great love of them.

Bats are people, too.

Bats are people, too.


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