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  • Writer's pictureSteven Hansen

Jobs They Love: Pig Sanctuary Operators

Updated: May 6, 2021

Lucky are they who look forward to Mondays with joy in their hearts! Meet the folks whose talents and passions are happily matched to the jobs they have.


When people buy or are given an adorable little pot-bellied pig as a pet, they are often totally unprepared to provide them adequate care when their beagle-sized cutie grows into to a 200-pound problem from over-feeding. Mature pigs need healthy, balanced meals, special veterinary care and require ample space to roam and relax or they can become ill or unmanageable. Pigs also are herd animals and benefit socially from being in the company of other pigs. Life for an adult pet pig in an average American household is often doomed to neglect or abandonment once he or she becomes too much to handle.

Enter Mary Schanz and Ben Watkins, founders of Ironwood Pig Sanctuary in Tucson, AZ. Mary, a former medical technologist and animal activist, and her husband Ben, founded the 29-acre sanctuary in 2001 once they became aware of the horrendous fates of these abandoned animals – mostly Vietnamese pot bellied pigs – throughout Arizona and the Southwest. Their refuge, a nonprofit undertaking, has given 2,000 unwanted pigs a second chance at a happy, carefree life at this loving “home on the range.” The sanctuary has a current resident population of 625 pigs.

Their days running the sanctuary are long and often stressful, but the dedicated staff and volunteers keep the operation humming along and its lucky residents in tip-top shape. Donations and a few grants and bequests pay the expenses of food, supplies and medical care for the pigs. But the real fuel that keeps Ironwood running is the constant love, heart and soul of Mary and Ben.


(Answered by Mary)

Running a pig sanctuary is more than just a job. It’s really a 24/7 commitment. Do you ever get to take a vacation?

Yes it is 24/7 and we work every day. We do take an occasional vacation, of course this year has been different because of COVID, and some years we are not able to get away at all. The sanctuary has grown a lot and getting away for a break is more difficult now.

How does your typical day begin? And how does it go from there?

Our day begins at 4:30 a.m. By 5:30, I am ready to check the weather and answer and send emails and occasionally write some thank-you notes, work on the schedule or other management jobs until we start to feed at 8 a.m. Ben and I may also meet with maintenance staff to go over the myriad of jobs that need to be completed that day or in the days ahead. Before lunch, I meet with my assistant managers to talk about what medical issues there are with the pigs and what assignments will be made for the afternoon.

Often, I work with the staff outside in the afternoon or, when possible, I will come inside for the afternoon for phone meetings to discuss with my HR and pig placement people about any positions that need to be filled and any upcoming interviews we have scheduled. We also discuss the outreach to our large groups of pigs and any actions we need to take. This is mostly making arrangements to get them neutered and spayed to prevent more births. I also try to work on writing my part of the newsletters at this time.

Ben handles all our ongoing business duties, including interfacing with the many contacts and agencies to keep the sanctuary’s insurances up to date, along with required audits, 990s, and state registrations. He also creates the layouts for our newsletters and acquisition mailings. He is a retired engineer and he designed the facility and oversees all the significant maintenance issues.

Yes, our days are long and busy!

Is running an animal sanctuary what you ever imagined you’d be doing for your second career?

No, it is not. However, I was involved with animal rights for several years and found I was angry and depressed all the time. So, when Ben and I saw an article in the paper about a lady with a pig sanctuary in desperate need of help, we got involved with her and volunteered there for about 1 ½ years. We could see there was a great need for a bigger and more expansive place. We saw that creating Ironwood could be a way for us to make a difference and it has. We will celebrate Ironwood’s 20th anniversary in a couple of months!

You are like the adoptive parents from heaven for these fortunate rescues. Do you have any favorites among these “kids”?

There are many of course and many have passed away over the years. For now, I would say Bailey is one and Jellybean is one and Andre is another and Waddles, too.

Thankfully, there are more and more animal rescue sanctuaries around the U.S. now helping care for abandoned and mistreated animals. Do you ever get to visit any of them or share information with them?

I would like to visit more but our time is limited. We did spend a full day with Faith Maloney at Best Friends and that was a delight. Peggy Couey from Shepherds Green Pig Sanctuary in Cookeville, TN , is one of my favorite people and we have visited her place a couple of times and we keep in touch by email or talk on the phone occasionally.

Photos: (From top) Ben and Mary giving Andre a sunny morning massage; two happy rescues Thumper and Faline.

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