RAMONA — In 1998, Martin and Nancy Koontz moved to Ramona with a couple of cats and a potbellied pig named Bailey.
Today, the couple shares their ranch with 95 potbellied pigs, all of them rescues who have found a comfortable retirement at Grazin’ Pig Acres. The couple spends virtually everything they earn and all of their free time caring for the pigs, as well as 16 other rescue animals including a donkey, sheep and pygmy goat.
Martin, a bus driver for the Poway Unified School District, said he and his wife of 23 years never intended to open a rescue ranch. It happened out of necessity.
“We’ve got big hearts and a little bank account,” he said. “There wasn’t really a place for unwanted pigs in the county so once the word got around that we would take them in, it just grew and grew. None of this was planned.”
Opie is one of the potbellied pigs that lives at Grazin’ Pig Acres in Ramona. His pen has the florist hut. Many of the pens are themed with other pens like doctor’s office, a saloon, a hat shop and general store.
The Koontzes have always had a soft spot for the wiry-haired, low-to-the-ground creatures, who are smart, affectionate, odorless and highly social. But for all the pluses there are to pig ownership — and Nancy says there are many — they’re not ideal pets for most, and that’s how so many ended up at Grazin’ Pig Acres.
Many are like Betty, a 3-year-old black-and-white pig in a Minnie Mouse scarf, who grew too big for her owner’s Palm Springs apartment. Unscrupulous breeders sell the animals as tiny piglets to uneducated buyers with the promise that they’re “teacup” varieties and will never exceed 45 pounds.
“There’s no such thing as a mini or micro potbellied pig,” Martin said. “They are adorable when they’re 8 to 12 weeks old, but they don’t stay that size.”
Dozens more arrived after the wildfires in 2003 and 2007.
“The owners had bigger problems to deal with and they couldn’t care for them anymore,” he said. “Maybe they lost their home, maybe their fence was down. Whatever the reason, they called us.”
Others came as the result of a divorce, job loss or foreclosure. A few have medical problems, like 18-month-old Tubby, who has a knee joint disorder. Many arrive with mites and a few with skin cancer (light-skinned pigs get slathered with sunblock every three days). And some were victims of neglect by owners who didn’t realize the pigs need a big yard, a companion animal to bond with and some hands-on attention.
“They love being loved,” said Nancy, as she scratched the tummy of Puumba, the ranch’s biggest pig. Known as the “gentle giant,” 350-pound Puumba arrived four years ago from Sun City, where his owner was moving and could no longer keep him.
Martin Koontz lures a group of potbellied pigs back into their enclosures after their hour roaming the property, with treats of animal crackers. The Koontzes’ rescued pigs get a couple hours of free-range exercise every day.
Because of his enormous size, Puumba is probably part farm pig. Most potbellied pigs top out at 150 pounds. Each pig eats two cups of chow a day, as well as several snacks like carrots and animal crackers. The monthly feed and medicine bill runs $1,500 to $2,000 a month.
In 2008, the Koontzes incorporated Grazin’ Pig Acres as a nonprofit hoping it would spark donations from the public, but few have trickled in. Some grade school classrooms and Boy Scout troops have helped out by building pens and collecting blankets, which the pigs adore but wear out quickly. They also have a few loyal volunteers who show up weekly to help out, like speech therapist Kate Simpson.
Simpson met the Koontzes in 2003 when they offered to take in some runaway pigs collected by the emergency animal rescue group she works with. She was so impressed with the couple and the work they do, she has been helping out there every Friday for the past 12 years.
“It’s a compassionate environment where the pigs get a healthy diet, medicine and a trip to the vet when they need it, and they’re well socialized,” Simpson said. “Marty and Nancy give all their money, all their time and all their heart. They’re just tireless and endlessly devoted to those pigs.”
Whenever he picks up a rescue, Martin asks the owner for a donation, especially if the animal needs spaying (the surgery costs $400 to $500). The average donation is about $50. A few have promised to return with more cash on payday or vowed to retrieve their pig in a few months, but most never return. To reduce their vet bills, the Koontzes trim their pigs’ toenails and tusks, but the task can be dangerous. Nancy, a nurse, nearly lost a finger to one bite and another pig left a serpentine gash on her left arm.
Nancy said it’s hard work caring for the pigs, who each get two feedings and two periods of free-range exercise and socialization every day. The care process takes 10 to 12 hours a day. With no children or paid help to step in, the Koontzes haven’t taken a vacation in 15 years.
On Friday morning, they toured visitors around “Pig City,” where each of the pens has a small wood shed painted and decorated to look like a small town business. Pickles and Pigtoria live at the “post office.” Dewey’s home is the candy shop. Tucker, Betty and Bruiser share the barber shop, complete with a tiny barber pole. Other pigs occupy the general store, hat shop, doctor’s office and saloon.
A handful of pigs outside their pens for socialization time followed the pair around like devoted dogs. The Koontzes ranch is not open to the public and although they have tried, they haven’t been successful adopting out rescued pigs to new homes.
“Everybody wants the pigs when they’re cute little babies, but there’s not much of a market for the adults,” Nancy said.
Potbellied pigs live 12 to 15 years, which is about how much time the Koontzes — who are both 53 — have left until retirement. Although they have taken in every rescue pig they could in past years, they’re now forced to turn people away. They say they don’t know of any ranches in San Diego County that are now taking in pigs.
Nancy said it’s heartbreaking turning pigs away and it’s stressful trying to keep up with the backbreaking work and the bills. But it’s a life she and her husband chose and the rewards have been many.
“They’re sweethearts,” she said. “We love them all.”
For information about Grazin’ Pig Acres or to donate money, blankets, feed or volunteer hours, call (760) 522-5972 or visit