Fort McMurray therapy pig visits Manitoulin Island

Walter G. Fitzpiggins recently passed through Manitoulin Island twice on his way between Kitchener and Alberta. He paused on the return trip for some sightseeing. photos by Michael Erskine

MANITOULIN – Manitoulin Island received two special visits on September weekends from a 125-pound three-year-old who was on a cross-Canada road trip from his Fort McMurray, Alberta home to his caregiver’s hometown near Kitchener, all while spreading smiles and good feelings on his four sets of hooves.

Meet Walter G. Fitzpiggins—The Fort McMurray therapy pig.

“Had you told me three years ago that this would be my life, I’d have laughed so hard and said you were full of it. There’s no way in a million years that I thought I’d ever own a pig,” said Alison Bolden, Walter’s keeper.

Ms. Bolden was born and raised in Ontario but moved to Fort McMurray a decade ago. This was the first time since the move that she has had three weeks off in a row so she opted to drive to her old stomping grounds with her new companion in tow.

Walter entered her life on January 8, 2018, when he was dropped off at Borealis Pet Centre. He had had two previous owners in his five-month life and the store staff let him stay at the business while they sought the pig’s forever home.

The staff made sure all prospective families knew the challenges that come with owning a pig. They’re not easy to take care of and can grow to be quite large—three-year-old Walter weighs 125 pounds and is in the middle of the average weight of an American miniature pig, though he can still grow up until the age of five.

Most people backed out when they learned about caring for these creatures and a nearly-perfect family had to withdraw when their two existing pigs did not get along with Walter. The staff resolved to keep him as the store pet.

That plan had its challenges. The hungry animal got into food bags at the store and it was hard to keep him distracted all day. Nobody wanted to see Walter struggle so Ms. Bolden invited him home with her.

It was a tight fit.

She lives with her senior parents in a basement apartment and Walter joined the ranks of a 17-and-a-half-year-old cat, a Quaker parrot and a cocker spaniel. Walter has a small bed next to Ms. Bolden’s but often curls up right next to her.

“Somewhere along the way I found the American Mini Pig Association and they have a therapy program for pigs. With all of the tricks we had taught him he was already above and beyond the skills he needed except for ‘wait’ and he learned that in two minutes,” said Ms. Bolden.

He got certified in July 2019 after Ms. Bolden sent videos of the tricks.

Pigs are extremely intelligent, with brain function (and personality) similar to a four-year-old human. However, they can be homebodies, anti-social and highly territorial. Walter’s upbringing in a pet store has made him very social around people and his intelligence allows him to pick up on subtle social cues, ideal qualities for a therapy animal.

Walter had the opportunity to visit Manitoulin Island over the past two weekends as they drove through on their way to and from the Kitchener area.

“I definitely wish we had a chance to stay longer and look around a bit more. I was really surprised by how big (Manitoulin) was,” said Ms. Bolden.

Their only stop on the eastbound trip was in South Baymouth while waiting on the Chi-Cheemaun. They visited the beach near the playground and stopped for some photos near the town’s lighthouse.

“He was therapy pigging there because anyone who walked by and spotted him had to come over and see him,” she said.

The attention continued once they boarded the ferry.

“He loves being a therapy pig. When we were on the ferry, he probably didn’t even realize he was on a ferry because he just thought he was working. That was a lot easier for me, too, a lot less stressful,” Ms. Bolden said.

Owen Sound Transportation Company was excited by the prospect of its porcine passenger and shared photos of Walter on its Twitter account. 

Travelling with a perpetual toddler comes with its challenges. He can sometimes be reluctant to go into the car with his adoptive mother and is not shy about voicing his opposition to things he dislikes.

“I don’t know if you’ve ever heard a pig scream, but it comes in at around 115 decibels. It’s, uh, unpleasant,” said Ms. Bolden with a laugh. However, he tends to listen to Ms. Bolden’s calls for calm when he has a tiredness meltdown or is in an unfamiliar setting for a long time. 

Freeze-dried banana chips also go a long way.

“They’re very good at expressing themselves,” Ms. Bolden said. “There’s times when he’s screaming right next to me in the car and I have to tell him, ‘I understand that’s how you feel, and I want you to express it, but please do it quietly.’ Then, he’ll stick his nose in a blanket and keep screaming but it’ll be muffled.”

Walter’s return trip was much the same as the trip toward Kitchener—scores of people seeking to introduce themselves and many questions about all things pig. He and Ms. Bolden rode on the outside of the ferry on that trip and enjoyed the scenery, though the vast expanses of Lake Huron were at times unsettling for the three-year-old.

When The Expositor bought Walter a treat at Three Cows and a Cone in Little Current, it became clear he had discriminating tastes. He happily enjoyed a cone of Spider-man (spider-pig?) ice cream, as well as a chocolate cone that had fallen on the ground, but turned up his nose at a banana peel—a surprise for Ms. Bolden considering his love for freeze-dried banana chips.

They investigated the swing bridge and Walter enjoyed scratching his hide on many trees on the way, as he is in his bi-annual molt. Ms. Bolden laughed that it was better to shed there than in her bed.

His toddler personality shone through at times when he had to walk across pavement and grumbled with each step, with much relief once there was grass underhoof.

American mini pigs tend to live for 16 to 20 years and though Ms. Bolden adores Walter, she does not want to own another pig once he is no longer in her life.

“They’re incredibly intelligent but they’re messy and there are all sorts of negative things to pig ownership. But the love and personality you get from them definitely overrides the negativity,” said Ms. Bolden. “I’ll never have children. This is it for me and to have that piece of being a ‘mother’ is very rewarding. I will never, ever find a pig like Walter ever again—there will never be another,” she said.

As much as Walter has enriched the lives of countless clients, he has helped Ms. Bolder with her own anxiety.

“You wouldn’t know I struggle with it whenever I’m talking about Walter. He’s really helped me open up and talk to people and having him next to me makes it harder to run away,” she adds with a laugh.