By August Kryger - Courier-Times - August 15, 2007
Performing pigs draw large crowd at fair
Her skin is a subtle shade of pink. The whiskers under her nose are nearly as long as those on her head. A rainbow lei pushes the folds of her neck forward, forming thick flaps of leathery flesh. After rooting through several plastic multi-colored letters, she spells out what she is (or could become): H-A-M.
Her modesty doesn't do her fame justice, because most people know her as Nellie, the world's smartest pig.
Nellie's skills were honed for hoggish grandeur by her owner and co-star, Priscilla Valentine of Gig Harbor. The duo are the main attractions during Valentine's Performing Pigs show at the Skagit County Fair.
Valentine's practice with perfecting piggies came to her at an early age, she said.
"I've loved pigs since I was 3 years old."
Living on her father's farm, Valentine was around pigs much of the time. Though they were destined for the great barnyard in the sky, Valentine made the most of the time she had with her early pig friends.
"I would bake blueberry muffins and use those to teach them to climb ladders and jump through hoops," she said.
When Valentine heard about miniature pigs becoming available, she knew she had to get one. In 1992, when she bought her beloved swine Nellie, the pig wasn't the well-behaved brute she is today.
"She was ripping carpet, eating plants and causing all kinds of destruction," Valentine said.
But she remembered the pigs of her childhood, and the joy they had when performing tricks for muffins.
"So I trained one to spin in a circle, and it just loved it," Valentine said. "It's tail was going like a propeller."
Valentine found that teaching her pigs tricks cured them of their destructiveness, and gave them a newfound happiness.
"They just needed a challenge because they were bored," she said.
According to Valentine, pigs need stimulation and interaction because they are very intelligent.
"I never dreamed they could be so smart," she said.
Valentine said pigs are among the most intelligent animals.
"There are people and monkeys at the top, then whales and dolphins, then the noble pig."
This is one of the reasons Valentine doesn't recommend people have pigs as pets.
"They're just like a 2-year-old that lives with you for 15 years," she said. "Except with pigs, they root, they can get huge and they will end up training you."
But Valentine has a secret that gives her access to any pig's affection: food. To get a pig to dunk a basketball, one of the popular tricks Nellie performs, Valentine teaches in easy-to-learn increments. First, she put a ball in her mouth and then gave her a treat. Then she had her drop it over a hoop for a treat. The rest is piggy magic.
"Pigs will do anything for food, but they have to both trust and love you," she said. "So you can use that to train them pretty easily." Nellie and the other pigs have learned a great deal of tricks since that first fateful day when Valentine taught Wilbur the pig to spin in a circle. The performing pigs do 300 shows a year. They've appeared on "Good Morning America," "The Tonight Show," the "Late Show with David Letterman" and have been on Animal Planet more than 30 times, Valentine said.
"And all those times, Nellie's never disappointed me."
Nellie and her friends Petunia, Snort and six others can perform tricks such as pushing a lawn mower, jumping through hoops, dancing and more.
Nellie is now 15 years old and as ready as ever to awe the crowds with a wiggle of her stubby tail. There are a few more wrinkles on her face and more skateboard miles under her hooves than most pigs could possibly see, because Nellie is one of the oldest miniature pigs alive, Valentine said.
"She's still pretty though," Valentine said.
Valentine said they have no plans of slowing down or handing the hams over to another hog-lover.
"We will never retire," she said, "Because it's very exciting, and it's our passion and obligation to teach people that pigs deserve our respect."