SEBRING - Wellington may be an 800-pound hog of an animal, but when it comes to belly rubs he becomes one big baby.
Actually, belly rubs are to pigs what chocolate is to people, grinned Sue Levitt as Beverly Kaelin gave Wellington, lolling on his side in the hay, a little massage on his underside.
Pigs don't coo so this one didn't, but he looked like he was in hog heaven before Kaelin swaddled him up in blankets to keep him warm on a cool Florida day Thursday.
Wellington is one of 100 pigs that live and roam on 5 acres where Kaelin and Levitt run an unusual animal rescue in Sebring - the Florida chapter of The Pig Preserve.
Pigs of all shapes, sizes, colors and breeds freely roam around the fenced-in grounds or in corrals, many spending their last days after being rescued from animal testing sites or petting zoos or given up by owners who didn't want to deal with a grown pet pig.
Kaelin, who got into pig rescue 12 years ago after her pet pig died from a botched neutering surgery, said some pet owners don't do their research before buying the animals or get bad information on "micro pigs" from unscrupulous breeders.
The pigs either get too big for owners' tastes or live longer than they expected. "You don't get animals and don't know how to take care of them," she said.
Recently, Kaelin and Levitt, who was running her own separate pet rescue, joined forces and now both of them volunteer several hours a week taking care of the pigs in their care or educating the community about the animals. They spend their own money feeding the pigs and rely on in-kind help or donations for covering medical expenses.
"They are so affectionate, they are so intelligent," said Levitt about the animals. She also takes care of two special needs pigs in her home, and is the national president of The Pig Preserve Association, a Tennessee-based nonprofit.
All the pigs on the preserve have names, and Levitt and Kaelin can tell them all apart.
Apparently, the pigs know what their monikers are and some perked up their heads or waddled over when they were addressed. Tommy, a small, black piglet who was scampering around the place, even stood somewhat on hind legs begging for treats.
Amber Shaw and Joseph Lancaster, who help out, said every pig has its own personality.
"No two pigs are alike," Lancaster said.
Their pig, Jezebel, who lives at the rescue, recently had a litter of seven. Shaw showed off squealing baby pig Bailey, who didn't waste any time missing his mama and emphatically wanted them to know that.
Shaw and Lancaster needed a place for Jezebel and connected with Kaelin through a friend.
Now, the two help feed the pigs hay or pellet food two times a day and do whatever else they need to help.
The preserve has several pot-bellied pigs of different sizes. Among the other breeds are three kunekune, mild-mannered domestic pigs from New Zealand, who have their own enclosure to keep them away from the more aggressive animals.
Some of the pigs at the rescue, like Smuckers, have permanent injuries from hunting accidents or after being attacked by other animals such as dogs.
Smuckers can't breathe through his nostrils, Levitt said. A dog grabbed him by snout, disfiguring his face. A few others were missing ears that were snipped off.
Right now the sanctuary is "beyond full," Kaelin said, adding the preserve helps pig owners find homes or even mend a fence instead.
Over the last two to three years, they have adopted out about five pigs but the economy has made it risky to adopt out animals who may be abandoned when times get tough for pet owners, Kaelin said.
"In the past it used to be 30 or so," Kaelin said.
Volunteers and donations are always sought, she said. To donate, call Kaelin at 850-232-8200; or Levitt at 321-537-6135.