By Robin Garr
They squeak like a child's squeeze toy. Their flabby bellies almost drag on the ground. Their wagging tails lack the traditional curl, and they have squashed-in faces that only a mother could love.
A mother pig at that.
But keepers at the Louisville Zoo say the zoo's four new Vietnamese pot-bellied pigs -- yes, that's the name -- are drawing crowds of spectators who seem to find the wrinkled little beasts adorable.
"They're so ugly, they're cute," said mary T. Duane, the zoo's director of external affairs. "Some people think they're miniature rhinos."
Part of the appeal of the animals may be their small size, said Val Haft, small-animal-area keeper in charge of the pig's quarters.
The 7-month-old pigs are close to their adult weight of 60 to 70 pounds -- only about one-tenth the size of mature domestic swine.
Some find them curious because, although they are common in the jungles and farmyards of their native Southeast Asia and have been displayed in some zoos in Europe and Canada, the spoecies hasn't been seen in U.S. zoos until now.
Under special dispensation from federal regulations that strictly limit swine imports, the Louisville Zoo and four other zoos in this country received colonies of the animals in February.
The Louisville Zoo purchased its four from the Bowmanville Zoo in Ontario, Canada.
Because the tropical species doesn't thrive in temperatures below 60 degrees, the four
-- Wilbur, Homer, Bonnie and Lulu -- weren't put on display until recently. Now they're in a grassy enclosure in the zoo's small-animal area, where petting is allowed.
The Vietnamese pigs, like domestic swine, will eat just about anything placed before them, Haft said. Until a feeder for wandering turkeys was moved out of the pig pen, she said, the greediest of the group was getting overweight from pigging out on bird seed.
With that temptation removed, the quartet seems to be thriving on a mixture of commercial pig chow, apples, sweet potatoes, tomatoes and carrots.
The pigs require some care in addition to being fed and kept warm, Haft said. Their sparsely haired hides sunburn easily, so it's sometimes necessary to run them inside at midday. Keepers must squirt their backs with mineral oil several times a week to help keep their skin from drying out.
Like domestic pigs, the Vietnamese oinkers roll in the mud to stay cool, but they're clean and almost odor-free. Their mud wallow is limited to a back corner of the enclosure, Haft said, "so they won't root up the whole pen."
Now that the pigs are almost mature, it probably won't be long before the enclosure is filled with the pitter-patter of little pig feet, Haft said. The animal's gestation period is less than four months, so litters of Vietnamese pot-bellied piglets are expected by fall.
Because demand for the species is increasing in this country, the Louisville Zoo probably would sell or trade the piglets to other zoos, Haft said.
"We like have them because we didn't have any swine before," she said.
"And they're just plain cute," Duane said. "Apparently everybody enjoys the oddity of a petite little pig. And they're so friendly . . . they'll come right over and let you pet them."