With a wag and an oink, therapy pigs cheer young and old

The Enterprise — Melissa Hale-Spencer

Making a new friend: Albert EinSwine looks up at a resident of Our Lady of Mercy Life Center in Guilderland.

GUILDERLAND — Slipping here and there along the well-polished floor tiles, Albert EinSwine was greeted with smiles, outstretched hands, and an occasional gasp as he traveled the corridors of Our Lady of Mercy Life Center on Friday afternoon.

Albert is a 32-pound pot-bellied pig. At the end of his leash was Terry Hutchison who, along with Ed Klingbeil, regularly visits 130 nursing homes in 20 counties. This was their first visit to the Guilderland center, so Albert was a novelty.

Bacon Bits, Albert’s 135-pound half-brother, often comes along, too.

Hutchison and Klingbeil were wearing matching blue polo shirts; on the back, each was embroidered with a picture of Bacon Bits and of Albert EinSwine and with the words “Traveling Therapy Pigs.”

Hutchison was given Bacon Bits by friends as a get-well gift when, three years ago, she was recovering from treatment for a serious heart ailment. What was her response to the unusual gift?

“You really can’t print that,” she said with a smile.

But she came to love her pig, who lives in her Glen house much like a dog would, even sleeping on the couch. Her pigs are housebroken, she added.

“People came to see me as I recuperated. I could see how he cheered people up,” she said of Bacon Bits.

And so a therapy-pig program was born.

Hutchison’s daughter thought up the name Bacon Bits. “We caught heck from PETA,” she said of the animal rights group, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

She also ran into trouble with Albert EinSwine’s name when she took him to Union College.  She recalled being told, “Albert Einstein was kicked out of Germany and the Nazis used to call Jews swine,” so that her pig, on campus, should be called simply “Albert.”

“My next one, I’m going to call ‘No Name,’” she said.

 

The Enterprise — Melissa Hale-Spencer
Pig in arms: Terry Hutchison holds her pot-bellied pig as he is admired by a staff member and resident of Our Lady of Mercy Life Center on Friday afternoon.

 

Klingbeil, who has retired from his work as a machinist at General Electric, knew Hutchison because they are both emergency medical technicians. “We rode ambulance together,” he said.

Now they are volunteers together in the pig-therapy business. Klingbeil said their days of visiting nursing homes begin at 8 a.m. and last to 6 or 7 p.m.

“It’s all-volunteer,” he said. “We’ll take a few bucks for gas,” he added of accepting donations.

What keeps him at it? “The satisfaction of putting a smile on people’s faces.”

Albert elicited smiles from the moment he arrived in the lobby of the Our Lady of Mercy Life Center on Friday. Seven-year-old Anthony Jimenez who was visiting from the Bronx rushed over to pat the pig, pronouncing him “cool.” His mother said he had never before touched a pig. It made him smile.

Hutchison has trained Albert to do three tricks. At nine months, Albert can sit, he can jump, and he can catch a treat off of Hutchinson’s nose. He was rewarded with pieces of carrot for his performance on Friday.

“He’s a male and he’s a pig — it’s all about the food,” she said.

 

The Enterprise — Melissa Hale-Spencer
Doing his tricks: Albert EinSwine sits for his owner, Terry Hutchison, as she offers him a carrot. He also jumps and catches treats off her nose.

 

Albert and Bacon Bits eat some grain but are mostly fed fresh fruits and vegetables. They visit not only nursing homes but also the Albany airport, where they can distract and soothe apprehensive travelers, and area colleges including Union, Skidmore, Siena, and Schenectady County Community College.

“It reduces stress when they’re studying for exams,” said Hutchison of the pigs’ effect on students..

As Albert made his rounds on Friday, residents asked to be wheeled out of their rooms to see him. He made near-constant noises as he was stroked, almost like a purring cat.

“We talk in the car all the time,” said Hutchison.

“The only time he doesn’t talk is when he sleeps,” said Klingbeil.

“Say whaaaat?” intoned Hutchison to her pig.

Albert responded with the same inflection, as if answering.

The gaggle of residents who were watching from their wheelchairs chuckled.

“Look at the pig,” directed an aid to one woman in a wheelchair.

“Which one?” she asked.

“I want a pig!” exclaimed a staffer as she rushed to take a picture of Albert with her phone. She said, though, she’d get kicked out of her home if she brought home another pet.

Hutchinson said women often tell her that their husbands or boyfriends won’t let them have a pig.

Her advice: Get the pig, ditch the man.

Albert’s tail wagged as Hutchison cheerfully answered many of the same questions from each cluster of residents who gathered to admire him.

“You’ve heard of a boar’s-hair brush?” she’d ask and go on, pointing to her pig “Well, there’s the hair and there’s the boar. Put a stick in his mouth and you can comb your hair.”

In between visits with residents, Hutchison explained to The Enterprise, “We used to carry him in a stroller. Patients would connect with that.” Now she often uses a red wagon. “That triggers just as well,” she said.

“I always thought their tails would be curly,” said one white-haired woman, admiring Albert’s straight tail.

“How come he isn’t pink?” asked another woman.

Klingbeil compared Albert’s tail to an elephant’s tail and also said that Albert is a cross between a Vietnamese and a Chinese pot-bellied pig, which come in a range of colors.

He said, too, that the range of reactions to the visiting pigs goes from “I’ve never seen a pig before” to “I used to raise hogs,” often followed by a long reminiscence.

“Does his tail ever stop wagging?” asked another resident.

“No,” answered Hutchison. “This is his job. He loves it.”

“How long do they live?” a resident asked Hutchison of her pets.

“Fifteen to 20 years, just like a dog,” she said.

The woman patted Albert’s back and said she was surprised it was so soft.

“We brush him every day,” said Hutchison. She also said that pigs were the third smartest animal, after dolphins and chimpanzees.

Bacon Bits will soon be appearing in a children’s book by Peggy Frozen.

He is a favorite with kids. Hutchison described a recent visit she made to a 4-H training center with hundreds of second-graders.

“There was an autistic child there,” she said. “The crowd was too overwhelming for him. He had put a raincoat over his head.”

This was a job for a therapy pig.

“The pig calmed him down,” said Hutchison. “He took the raincoat off.”

Later, when the children were outside for activities involving the pig, she recalled with a smile, “This little boy walked up to his classmates, as assured as could be, and said, ‘He’s my friend.’”

 

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