SIERRA VISTA — She can sit on command, is totally potty-trained and could eat Cheerios gently from an outstretched hand all day if she had the time.
Bella, a micro pig on the verge of her second birthday, stays pretty busy. When she’s not enjoying time with her biological brother Pua, taking a bath in her play pool or playing with her pack of fellow rescue animals, Bella works to provide much needed comfort.
The pig, often dolled up in a brightly colored tutu or bow, is a therapy pig certified through the American Mini Pig Association’s therapy pet training program.
The Juliana breed pig of about 65 to 70 pounds visits nursing homes, hospices, schools, children and just about any other facility that’s interested. Bella can do everything a therapy dog can, but brings something unique when she visits.
Owner Paula Behrman said people respond to Bella in a big way and the pig is just happy to be around people.
“It’s interesting because most people are used to a service dog, so she’s different and I love it,” she said. “There’s something special about her and she knows, she’s very intune with people.”
“They (pigs) are very sensitive, they are very smart, very family-oriented — they are pack animals so they don’t like to be alone.”
Behrman always wanted to train a service animal and as an animal rescuer she always had assumed it would be a dog. However, none of her rescue dogs had quite the right temperament for therapy work.
She said boyfriend Danny Eichelberger is the one who put the idea of training a therapy pig into her head.
“She’s the best animal I’ve ever had, honestly, and I would have never gotten a pig if it wasn’t for Danny — he wanted one, so I was like, ‘Let’s do it. I’ll train her,’” Behrman said. “They are super easy to train — they listen well and they are very food-driven — you can get them to do anything if you have food.”
Behrman and Eichelberger adopted Bella’s older brother Pua from a family where he was kept in a cage and had developed atrophy about a year and a half ago. Bella was about 6 months old when they adopted her and she was socialized with humans from the start.
“With her, she’s always been around people, that’s always been kind of her thing,” Eichelberger said. “She likes people, she loves being around people, she likes kids.”
At the time, they were living in Tucson and Behrman said she was lucky enough to work at a cemetary that allowed her to bring Bella to work. They started visiting nursing homes and Bella went through her therapy pet training program.
“She would have to sit, to stay, she’d have to leave food which is super hard for a pig, then different touches, wheelchairs...,” Behrman said. “For example, when you’re in a dementia unit some people may pet her hard or grab her and she doesn’t care, she’s used to it.”
The couple moved to the Hereford area about 7 months ago and Behrman is working to get the word out about Bella and find her niche within the community.
So far, they recently visited residents at Via Elegante Assisted Living in Hereford, who responded so well to the experience they might bring Bella in regularly.
“With the dementia patients, some of the people they say don’t talk or they don’t really interact with anybody but when they meet Bella they start talking about when they were on the farm when they were younger,” Behrman said. “This one lady was talking about how she used to ride her potbelly pig and the staff were like ‘she never says that.’ She brings something out in people.”
Eichelberger attested to Bella’s abilities to reach people, even those who struggle to remember their pasts.
“It brings back a lot of memories for the older people and it seems like it stimulates their minds,” he said. “I’ve been on a couple visits and the people really like it; it’s different and a lot of them seem to have grown up on a farm.”
When Bella visits a location, they have the group sit in a circle around her and everyone gets the opportunity to feed her fruit and vegetables. She’s gentle enough that children all the way up to the elderly can feed her from their hands or a fork if they prefer.
Sessions last for an hour and half and Bella will stop by the rooms of bed-ridden patients so everyone gets a chance to interact with her.
The work feels good, not just for Bella and the people who get to pet her, but for Behrman and Eichelberger too.
“I’ll tell you, when we went and did our first visit (in Sierra Vista) it brought my soul back,” Behrman said. “It’s so fulfilling and she’s so fun to be with and it’s so fun to see everyone’s reaction to her, how happy they get.”
When Bella isn’t bringing smiles to people’s faces, she can found relaxing at home, affectionately called the Misfit Ranch.
Behrman and Eichelberger have a menagerie of rescue animals — two pigs (Bella and Pua), seven dogs and 10 cats.
The animals all exist in harmony and are very much Bella’s pack and family.
While Behrman said that the overall care of pigs involves much of the same care for a dog or other pet, pigs have special requirements, particularly when it comes to social time.
“They’re good pets and they do well with dogs and cats,” Eichelberger said. “They’re like children, you have time to give them.”
Behrman is looking forward to introducing Bella to the community and continuing the therapy work.
“That’s the thing with her, she relieves your stress and she puts smiles on peoples’ faces,” Behrman said. “It’s becoming more common to use pigs as a service animal.”