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For schools or nursing homes in need, Porkchop the therapy pig is here to save the day

Hartford Courant - 9/26/2022

With more than 1,000 followers on Instagram, Porkchop the therapy mini-pig is hamming it up all over Connecticut, bringing joy to schools, nursing homes and now, birthday parties.

Her bright disposition aside, Porkchop even poops out tomato seeds that have produced a bumper crop of the cherry variety.

“I take her everywhere,” said Porkchop’s mom and trainer Jess Moffo, an animal control officer at Woodbridge Regional Animal Control. “She lightens my heart, and I see the effect she has on other people. ... She’s so gentle and caring.”

Porkchop returned last week to Southington High School’s Collaborative Learning Program because her visits last year were so positive for students. Students love helping Porkchop through her obstacle course by feeding her blueberries.

“Porkchop is just a wonderful break for our students,” said Kristine Frattini, a social worker at the school. ”Porkchop changes the mood of the day.”

Moffo, who lives in Waterbury with her husband, four dogs and Porkchop, has been working with the min-pig over the past year to earn her official therapy pig certification. That official designation will allow them to add hospital visits to the itinerary.

The idea of helping people through animals came from Moffo’s memory of how her late grandmother with dementia so beautifully connected with her whenever she visited with her dog.

Moffo is doing Porkchop’s training herself through the American Mini Pig Association’s program. When Porkchop masters a skill, Moffo sends the association a video to prove it. The skills Porkchop needs to master include gentle treat-taking, walking among people, coming when her name is called, obeying the commands sit, stay and leave it and walking up stairs.

Once Porkchop is officially certified, Moffo plans to visit children and veterans in hospitals.

Moffo originally planned to train a therapy dog but decided to switch species when her cousin offered her a piglet in exchange for farm work. Moffo has never second-guessed that decision.

When Moffo got Porkchop, she weighed only 10 pounds and had blond hair with black spots. Now she’s 50 pounds with tan, black and white hair. She’s part potbelly, part Juliana pig.

There’s something about seeing a pig walk in that makes people smile, she said.

Moffo said she gets some wisecracks about Porkchop’s name — and some snarky remarks such as “Pass me the barbecue sauce,” but she assures them Porkchop is like a daughter to her and will never be someone’s food.

“You just think of a pig as food,” said Moffo, who gave up pork after getting Porkchop and is working toward vegetarianism. “She personally is so above and beyond, It makes people fall in love with her.”

Greta Perrin, the recreation director at The Willows in Woodbridge, a nursing home/rehab facility, said Porkchop visits every other month.

“The residents love that she comes to each one of them and they can feed her,” Perrin said. “Everyone can pet her. A few people held her. It absolutely makes their day.”

One resident who wouldn’t get out of bed for six months, finally got up and out when she heard Porkchop was coming, Perrin said.

“She’s definitely therapeutic, and residents aren’t afraid of her,” Perrin said.

Even though it’s not a business, but rather a volunteer gig, Moffo recently made a birthday party appearance with Porkchop in Cheshire. Now she has two more parties booked. She sometimes accepts tips.

“The kids thought it was the coolest thing ever,” said mom, Michelle Follert, who threw the party for her 4-year-old daughter Olive.

Follert, who had many activities at the party, said she wanted something educational and fun that wasn’t “a big deal,” to organize and achieve. She heard about Porkchop from her son’s former teacher.

The kids at the party learned a lot from Moffo, got to see Porkchop’s tricks and feed her fruit, a lesson she said was healthy for the kids, too.

Porkchop wags her curved tail at the sight of people and is so tame and cheery. She tolerates a lot that other pigs might not like, such as being petted on the head from above. She travels in a dog stroller to be at eye-level with interactions.

She loves to snuggle, cuddle and has a farm-themed room with five beds to choose from throughout the house. The oversized canopy bed she got for her second birthday on Sept. 6 is her favorite, Moffo said.

Moffo had trouble at first getting her husband, Chris Moffo, to accept Porkchop into their home which already includes four big dogs. She stayed out late the first night with Porkchop, as Chris insisted, “No way,” was she bringing a pig home.

But a few weeks later he “surrendered,” she said, having been charmed by Porkchop.

She’s so well trained that when Porkchop hears, “It’s bedtime,” she runs right into her room. She’s also potty trained and has a specific grunt for being let out to go.

Porkchop also has a full wardrobe of tie-dye outfits, jackets, and novelty T-shirts. Porkchop is so “spoiled,” Moffo said, she doesn’t even roll in the mud to cool off like other pigs typically do.

Porkchop gets treats like cannoli and ice cream, but her basic diet is extremely healthy and consists of fruits and vegetables.

In her therapy pig role, Porkchop sits on laps, accepts hugs and does a few tricks such as spinning maneuvers and obstacle courses with jumping included.

“She’s not only helped others, she’s helped me,” Moffo said. “Seeing what she does for these other people, it makes me feel like she’s making a difference. You can definitely see they’re overjoyed.”

This year, Moffo also discovered accidentally that Porkchop can even plant vegetables with her poop. Moffo put Porkchop’s poop around an ailing lilac tree that hadn’t been blooming. Not only did the tree blossom beautifully, but cherry tomatoes and a few larger ones sprouted because of the seeds in her poop.

She calls them “poopmatoes.” Now Moffo is trying for squash and zucchini.

Moffo said it took a lot of work and exposure to crowds to train Porkchop because pigs can be “aggressive” if not socialized. She brings Porkchop to all the dog-friendly stores and even to the crowded north end of Boston to wait in line for a cannoli at Bova’s Bakery. Yes, Porkchop got a cannoli, too.

“She’s so gentle and caring,” Moffo said.

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