Ask Pittsburgh veterinarian Karen Phillips what farm animal passes through the city's animal shelters most frequently and the answer comes easily — pot-bellied pigs.
"I think because they are a spontaneous buy. They're very easy to purchase, and they're adorable," she says. "But they get big by hundreds of pounds. People will get over their heads with the pigs."
It's also not unusual for other farm animals to find their way to the city shelters. At first, Phillips, who has worked with Animal Friends, the Western Pennsylvania Humane Society and the Animal Rescue League, was taken off guard. Along with pigs, she would see abandoned chickens and ducks "which is weird in the middle of the city," she adds.
Gretchen Fieser, spokeswoman for the Western Pennsylvania Humane Society, says that the number of abandoned farm animals increased dramatically after the city passed its first Urban Agriculture Zoning Code in February 2011. The intent was to make it easier for city residents to produce their own food, including eggs from chickens and honey from bees.
"As soon as we saw that, we started to see a lot more chickens come through. Some were [quite] exotic," Fieser says, adding that the number of overall farm animals increased from a few here and there to several hundred each year.
The shelters, both Phillips and Fieser say, are not equipped to handle such animals.
That's in part why Phillips was inspired to build a sanctuary for them. Hope Haven Farm will be the first of its kind in Pittsburgh. She bought seven acres in the Sewickley area in June 2011. The barn is built and the main pasture fenced in. With only a bit more work to be completed, she expects to open to the public for tours in the spring.
The sanctuary is also inspired by a movement led by the national group Farm Sanctuary, which strives to put the spotlight on the lives of animals on factory farms, which Phillips plans to highlight too.
Phillips, a vegetarian who is in the process of transitioning into a vegan, says she hopes it fosters conversations about eating meat. In fact, a fundraiser this past weekend was sponsored by several restaurants offering vegan/vegetarian fare, including Gluuteny Bakery, in Squirrel Hill, and Piper's Pub, on the South Side, in an effort to showcase non-meat options.
"I think becoming a vegetarian or a vegan is a process. I don't want to cram gory, horrible information down [the public's] throats. I want them to make their own choice," Phillips says.