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TUXEDO FINDS JOY

Tuxedo was eating a bagel when I first met him. I leaned over the back of the Explorer, and there he was, a black pot-bellied pig with a white stripe down his snout and a white bib extending over his chest. Even the bagel and his slurps of enjoyment didn't detract from the elegant appearance that had given rise to his name.

The back of the Explorer didn't look much like an ark, but that's what it made me think of. The thick bed of sawdust and cedar chips reminded me of a roughly carved toy ark I'd seen once as a child, with brightly painted wooden animals nestling in sawdust inside. But this was an ark with just one passenger, in search of a brighter future.

Tuxedo didn't know this, and he wasn't happy to be there. The bagel finished, he peered up at us, his snout quivering, giving little apprehensive grunts. "It's okay, honey," Sue reassured him, stroking his broad back. But the truth was, none of us knew that for sure. What we did know was that Tux needed a new home, fast.

For the last five years Sue Engler, with her husband Darrell, has been at the helm of Engelschwein Farm, a sanctuary for abused and neglected pot-bellied pigs near Knoxville, Tennessee. Sue's interest in pot-bellied pigs began modestly enough, when her family adopted one. After she began to research her new pet, Sue became aware of the plight of many of these animals. Pot-bellied pigs were brought to the States on the wave of a fad for designer pets, but too many new owners proved unprepared for the realities of life with a pot-bellied pig. When these pets grew too large or required too much attention, they were often abandoned, neglected or abused.

Sue began rescuing more pigs, until Darrell suggested that she apply for a non-profit license and make a full-time occupation out of it. More and more pigs started finding their way to Engelschwein Farm, and soon, rescuing pigs became a way of life for the Engler family. According to Sue, there is no shortage of pigs needing to be saved from bad situations. "You don't have to go out looking for pigs," she says ruefully. "As soon as people find out what you're doing, the pigs come to you." But recent times have been hard for Engelschwein Farm, and a combination of antagonistic neighbors and unsympathetic county commissioners has forced Sue towards the reluctant decision to close Engelschwein Farm.

With 42 pigs currently in residence, Sue is now focusing her energy on finding new homes for the animals in her care. Some of the wilder pigs have found places at another sanctuary, but where possible, Sue is looking for private homes for her pigs. "If a pig is in the wild, you want to keep them in a herd situation, because that's what's natural to them," she explains. "But pot-bellied pigs came to the US as pets, and they have been brought up to expect a lot of love and attention and human companionship. They crave love from humans, so I advocate sending pigs to live in private homes where they will receive the attention they need. But they have to be with at least one other pig, because they are still herd animals and need the company of their own kind."

Which is where Joy Hildebrand and Willie enter the picture. Joy and her husband adopted Willie the pot-bellied pig about a year ago, when her son was no longer able to care for him. Since then, Willie has grown progressively more listless and overweight, and Joy concluded that he was lonely and in need of some piggy companionship. After reading about Engelschwein Farm on the Internet, Joy contacted Sue in search of a new friend for Willie. After much correspondence, Sue felt hopeful that Joy could provide a good home for Tux.

And so there we were, early on a Thursday morning, with Tux bedded down in the back of the Explorer. Sue had offered to make the drive from Tennessee to Michigan to deliver him personally to his new home, and her friends Denise MacKenzie and myself were along for the ride. As a New Zealander on vacation in the States, this journey offered me the novel chance to make a road trip through America in the company of a pig. But more importantly, it gave me the opportunity to be part of something significant: joining Tuxedo on his road home.

From the outset of the trip, Tux was a perfect gentleman. Despite the fact that he'd been in the Explorer all night, we couldn't let him out for a rest stop before hitting the road. (Coaxing him into the Explorer in the first place had been a major operation involving Sue pushing a reluctant Tux up a chute from behind.) Instead, Sue had provided him with a thick layer of sawdust and aromatic cedar chips to absorb his waste during the journey. However, he was clearly unwilling to soil his space by relieving himself. Contrary to popular opinion, pigs are generally fastidious animals, and Tux was no exception.

We tried to encourage him to lose his scruples. "It's going to be a long day," Sue advised him. "You'll feel much better if you just let go." But Tux wouldn't hear of it and, ignoring us, sat down on his haunches and watched the scenery roll past. By the end of the trip, the side windows were dotted with smeary round snout marks, evidence of Tuxedo's keen interest in the road.

As we drove north through Tennessee and into Kentucky, we were amused by the reactions of other motorists to our porcine passenger. Trucks would cruise past us, their drivers glancing over lazily as they passed, only to execute a classic double-take as they saw Tux. Tux seemed unaware of his minor celebrity status, and gazed unmoved at smiling and startled faces alike.

By the time we stopped for gas in central Kentucky, Tux was showing signs of growing discomfort. He had begun moving restlessly around the back of the Explorer and grunting in a way that sounded, to me at least, faintly reproachful. Sue, Denise and I all tried to persuade him to relieve himself, to no avail. In preparation for such a situation, Sue had brought along some Valerian root, a herbal extract that acts as a natural sedative. She offered him a pill concealed in an egg sandwich and, despite its intense gym-locker fragrance, he accepted it. "Soon he'll be feeling euphoric," Sue predicted. We all hoped that under the influence of the Valerian root, Tux would relax enough to lose his toileting inhibitions.

For a while, Tux was quiet, and we swapped pig stories as the Explorer carried us north. Sue and Denise told me about their friend Lucy, whom I would meet in Michigan. All three of them had met through their common love of pot-bellied pigs; indeed, Lucy loved her piggy Stella so much that Stella had acted as Lucy's maid of honor at her wedding. The ceremony took place on Engelschwein Farm. Stella was resplendent in a rosebud-trimmed veil, and she sat fatly by Lucy's side throughout. "She was so good," Sue remembered fondly.

I asked about Tux's history. Sue told me that he had entered her life as a scrawny youngster less than a year old. Someone had released him in the pasture of one of her neighbors, leading Sue to suspect that she was the intended recipient. His hooves were in excellent condition and he seemed well cared for, but he had simply been abandoned. When Sue got the news, she drove down to find him alone in the field with a horse, clearly terrified out of his wits. She won his interest with a jelly donut and, with the neighbor's help, lifted him into the car and took him straight to the vet. With such simplicity, he became a part of her family.

I wanted to know how Sue had selected Tuxedo to be Willie's companion. She explained that Tux hadn't made close friends among the other pigs at her sanctuary, and that in fact he was often bullied. Pigs have a hierarchical social system, and there is a distinct pecking order within the herd. Sue felt that Tux would fare better living with just one pig, and she hoped that he might assume a dominant role and rouse Willie from his lethargy. It seemed right for these two lonely pigs to come together. I was touched to think that at the end of our journey, our solitary ark dweller would become part of a pair.

By now we were crossing the state line into Ohio, and as we left Cincinnati behind us, Tux suddenly leapt into life. He began nosing agitatedly through the sawdust, grunting continuously. He found a towel that Sue had left for him in the back, and started to tear it into strips. Sympathizing with his frustration, we all spoke to him soothingly, but he was in no mood to be placated. Instead, he found a leather strap attached to the rear door and began to gnaw and tug it savagely. Tux was bursting with nervous energy, and he suddenly seemed a very big pig in a small space. I became slightly alarmed that he might find a way to open the rear door, and suggested to Denise that she should pull over. But before she could work her way off the interstate, Tux settled down again, lying down heavily with a final resigned grunt.

Before long he was fast asleep. We surmised that the Valerian had finally taken effect, and that he had been reacting to his loss of control. But even after succumbing to the sedative, he remained relentlessly continent.

The rest of the trip was uneventful. Tux slept off and on, and watched quietly through the window when awake. But we were all relieved to pull into the truck stop in Michigan where we had arranged to meet Lucy. Our ten-hour journey was nearly over, and Tuxedo was almost at his new home. Sue's relief was mingled with apprehension; meeting Tux's new owner was especially nerve-wracking for her. I understood how she felt. Even though we could always turn around and take Tux back to Tennessee if his new home proved unsuitable, that wasn't really the point. The bottom line was that Tux had to find a new home, and Sue wanted so badly for this to work out.

Lucy escorted us to Joy's house in her car, and I rode with her from the truck stop. I liked Lucy at once; she was bright and vibrant and I could see why Sue and Denise had spoken so warmly of her. Lucy told me more about Stella the bridesmaid pig. During Lucy's battle with breast cancer, Stella was her constant companion. "She got me through," Lucy said to me. "I told that pig things I never told another living soul. I love her so much - she's like my daughter." She also told me the secret of Stella's flawless behavior during the wedding ceremony: gumdrops. "She loves them. I kept feeding them to her so she'd stay still!"

As we drove through the countryside to Joy's house I was struck by the beauty of our surroundings. We passed fields of corn and handsome farmhouses flanked by red-painted barns. By now the sun was low in the sky and a mellow golden light flooded the landscape, contrasting vividly with the bruise colored rain clouds that were fast approaching. We followed Joy's directions and arrived at a pretty red house set in green gardens.

Joy hurried out to meet us, and from the moment I saw her, I felt my own nervousness dissolve. She seemed to be in her mid-fifties, and her face radiated motherly kindness. The Explorer pulled up beside us, and as we stood outside, we all got our first good look at Tuxedo's new home. Beside the red house was a fenced garden with a couple of chickens strutting around, and an elderly beagle, which wheezed towards us in greeting. A couple of cats regarded us with polite interest, and from behind a trellis in a smaller fenced-off section of the garden came familiar grunting noises. I walked over, and found Willie standing beside his own little house. We looked at each other briefly through the fence, and then Willie turned away, apparently unimpressed. He was a black pig with a very wrinkled face, and was considerably fatter than Tux.

I returned to the others, to find Tux disinclined to leave the safety of the Explorer. Joy's husband found a ramp, and together, Sue and Denise hustled Tux down the ramp and into the main garden. Impeccable to the last, Tuxedo ran to a less public spot before finally, after nearly 24 hours in the Explorer, releasing his bladder. It was obviously a great moment for him, and we almost sighed with relief ourselves.

His most pressing need attended to, Tux began a slow and thorough exploration of the garden. We kept an eye on him while chatting to Joy and her husband. Meanwhile, Willie retired to his house, displaying a complete lack of interest in his new companion. After a circuit of the garden, Tux stood by the gate into Willie's garden, so we let him through and stood back to see what would happen next.

Sue had cautioned us that Willie and Tux would be likely to display some initial aggression before becoming friends, but this was not immediately the case. Tux seemed more interested in roving the garden, sampling the cherry tomatoes that Joy had planted as piggy snacks, than in confronting his new roommate. Willie went to bed.

We followed Willie inside, to find a veritable piggy palace. Willie's house was partitioned off into separate rooms, with two sleeping alcoves complete with blankets, pillows, and a teddy bear. "What's this," Lucy said of the space beside the beds, "Willie's dressing room?" The walls were decorated with piggy crafts, and the crowning touch was a transistor radio, playing golden oldies. There was also a heater for those cool northern nights. Joy knew that Tux was a Southerner, and she was concerned lest he become chilly.

By now, Sue's face was radiant. Outside, it had begun to rain softly, but nothing could quench her relief and pleasure. And that was before she noticed that the water feeder was filled with apple juice. Clearly, Tuxedo had landed on his trotters. We spoke outside for a while, getting cheerfully wet. I took photographs of Tux's new house, and of Sue, Denise, Lucy and Joy posing in the rain. We hugged Joy before we left, feeling suddenly like old friends. We all said goodbye to Tux, but with little sorrow. He was so obviously in the right place.

As we retraced our route, the rain eased off. Lucy and I were talking happily about Tux when I saw it. Momentarily speechless, I touched her arm and gestured out the window. On the horizon was the widest, most vivid rainbow I had ever seen, its colors almost vibrating with intensity. It looked electric. The road curved towards it, and we watched it spellbound as it led us onwards. We followed it for mile after mile as it hung shimmering before us, a silent, eloquent promise that Tux's ark had found safe harbor.

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